Just over a month ago Sa'id Mortazavi, the Islamic Revolutionary Prosecutor in Tehran, agreed to receive the wife of one of the many political prisoners languishing in his jails. The visitor wanted Mortazavi to know that her husband, then in the third week of a hunger strike, was nearing death.
The prisoner in question is Akbar Ganji, a 46-yer-old dissident, whose fate is emerging as the latest hot topic in the power struggle within the Khomeinist establishment.
"What is all this fuss about?" Mortazavi reportedly snapped at Ganji's wife. "Who cares if Ganji dies? Each day many prisoners die in our jails."
Now however, and as Iran waits for a new administration under President-elect Mahmoud Ahamadinejad, it seems that many people care about Ganji's fate because "the fuss" about his imprisonment and alleged torture, has been transformed into a debate about the future of the Khomeinist system.
Who is Ganji and what is so special about him?
Since 1979, when the mullas seized power in Tehran, an estimated 2.3 million Iranians have spent some time in prison because of their opposition to the regime. In a sense anybody who is somebody in most walks of life has had some experience of prison in the Islamic Republic. And that includes the Shiite clergy. More mullas have been imprisoned in the past 27 years than members of any other social group in Iran. The revolutionary regime has also executed over 100,000 of its real or imagined opponents and driven a further 4.5 million people into exile, without a second thought.
So, why has Ganji received special attention?
Why is the establishment so afraid of him?
When Ganji first began to act as a dissident in 1996 many regarded him with suspicion. After all he had been a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard for over a decade before joining the Intelligence and Security Service. In that capacity he had even served a stint at the Iranian Embassy in Ankara "keeping an eye" on exiled dissidents.
So are the Khomeinists sore that one of their own has decided to turn against them?
Many Iranians believe this to be the case.
That explanation, however, is not satisfactory. Over the years, countless other Khomeinists have become critics of the regime in one way or another. Most of the "students" who held the American diplomats hostage in Tehran in 1979-80 are now among the loudest critics of the regime. Many of the intellectuals who collaborated in "cleansing" the universities and purging counterrevolutionary academics, writers and scholars have also distanced themselves from the regime. One of them Abdul-Karim Sorush has even become a critic of clerical intervention in politics. Another, Mustafa Moin, was the candidate of the "reformists" in the recent presidential election.
Ganji's case is special for a number of reasons.
To begin with. he is almost entirely a child of the Khomeinist revolution in sociopolitical terms. By social background, family history, and political upbringing he should be the model Khomeinist. He has fought for Khomeinism, both in the war against Iraq and in campaigns against dissidents and armed secessionists.
Few in his generation have more revolutionary credentials. Mortazavi, the prosecutor, who specializes in tracing the slightest flaw in his victims' revolutionary profile has been unable to find any in Ganji's.
Unlike other in-house critics of the regime, Ganji has succeeded in liberating himself, morally and intellectually, from his Khomeinist illusions.
Moin, for example, pretends that Khomeinism is a pure and beautiful ideal that has been sullied in practice. Ganji, on the other hand, has no doubt that Khomeinism itself is the root cause of all of Iran's sufferings in the past 27 years.
Moin is like Mikhail Gorbachev, who, even in the final moments when the Soviet Titanic was sinking, was trying to fool himself and others with a vision of " pure Leninism." Ganji, however, is like Boris Yeltsin who, although a member of the Soviet Politburo for years, at one point realized that the Bolshevik Revolution had been " the greatest tragedy in the history of the Russian people," and said so publicly.
Moin wants to reform a system that is unreformable. Ganji wants a new system that is as distant from the one in place as possible. All this means that while Moin is no threat to the establishment of which he remains a privileged member, Ganji is.
The regime can cope with the "if" and "but" school of criticism. The more shrewd operators of the regime, such as the outgoing President Muhammad Khatami , even encourage this kind of "lite" dissent because it helps foster the illusion that the system can accommodate a measure of debate. That illusion, in turn, could hoodwink some Westerners, including former US President Bill Clinton, into believing that the Khomeinist system is "a kind of democracy."
When the lawyer Mrs. Shirin Ebadi was nominated as the Nobel Peace laureate for 2004, Khatami welcomed her with the admonition not to "go beyond certain red lines." Mrs. Ebadi took the advice, and all went well for her. She devoted her acceptance speech to attacking the United States for "abuses of human rights" in Guantanamo Bay, and castigating Israel for "oppressing the Palestinians."
Knowing her red lines she made no mention of the tens of thousands of prisoners, including some of her own friends, rotting in Mortazavi's jails. But the "most important red line" according to Khatami, concerns the criticism of the "Supreme Guide" or the late Khomeini himself. Ganji, however, has rejected all advice from Khatami. He has insisted that the only red lines must be fixed by law in a democratic system.
Khatami is reportedly trying hard to arrange for Ganji's release, or at least make sure he stays alive for a few more weeks. This is because the outgoing president does not want his term to end on so tragic a note. But he is asking Ganji to do things that Ganji would never do: Respecting the "red lines" that Moin, Mrs. Ebadi and virtually all other in-house critics of the regime never cross.
Another reason why the regime is so incensed with Ganji is that , unlike other critics inside and outside the system, he cannot be accused of wanting anything for himself. He is not a politician and is not gunning for office. By remaining just a "concerned citizen" he appeals to those Iranians who feel that they, too, have been let down by the system. And because he is not associated with any political group he is respected by all.
But what may have triggered the "fight to the death" between Ganji and the system is his courageous and meticulously researched exposure of the corruption and cruelty at the heart of the regime, especially during the eight-year presidency of Ali-Akbar Hasahemi, the mulla who attempted a comeback but was soundly defeated by Ahamadinejad in last month's presidential election.
The books that Ganji published on the subject were instantly banned. But they have sold millions inside and outside Iran and remain important documents submitted to the court of history.
Ganji's voice must not be silenced. Even if we disagree with aspects, as this writer does, or even all of his analyses of Iran's problems, we must treasure him as a voice that appeals to the conscience of Iranians.
And now let me make a wild prediction: If Ganji stays alive for a couple more weeks he will be released by the new President Ahmadinezhad.
Why do I think that? The answer is simple: By releasing Ganji, Ahamadinejad would send a signal that he means to break with years of misrule by corrupt figures who have led the country into what everyone agrees is its deepest crisis in decades.