IRANIAN OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS...

IRANIAN OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS SPURN INVITATION TO WHITE HOUSE. Leading Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji is sitting on something many people would only dream of: a personal invitation to the White House today to meet with top U.S. officials overseeing the United States policy toward Iran, including the National Security Council�s Elliot Abrams and State Department�s Iran nuclear negotiator Nicholas Burns. It's even been dangled before him that President Bush may drop by the afternoon meeting of Iranian opposition activists. But Iran's most famous former political prisoner, who arrived in Washington earlier this week for a month long U.S. tour after six years in Iranian prison says, while tempted, he's not going to accept the invitation. And he�s not the only Iranian pro-democracy activist choosing not to go: among the others are former Iranian Revolutionary Guard founder-turned-dissident Mohsen Sazegara; student leaders Akbar Atri and Ali Afshary; Iranian American human rights activist Ramin Ahmadi; and Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah. Their demurrals hint at the complexity of the relationship between those Iranians seeking democracy and regime change and the American administration that says it has the same goals there.

�Democracy is not machinery that can be exported,� Ganji told me, through a translator, at a ceremony Monday night where he was the recipient of a press freedom award. �Democracy needs social infrastructure. Another precondition of democracy is to live in urban areas. Another precondition is a division between the public and private sectors. Another precondition is the separation of government from civic society, and the separation of religion and state. Another is tolerance.�

�Can you make a society that is urban, tolerant, democratic with $75 million?� Ganji asked, referring to the money the Bush administration has sought this year from Congress to promote dissident forces in Iran. �You could not even do that with $75 billion,� he concluded.

So who is coming today to the White House? According to Iranian sources, Amir Abbas Fakhravar, a 30-year-old Iranian writer, student leader and former political prisoner who has become close with former Reagan-era Pentagon official and neoconservative thinker Richard Perle; Bijan Kian, an Iranian American Republican activist and businessman from California who has sought a position on Iran policy in the Bush administration; and Abbas Milani, an Iranian scholar at Stanford University.

As Pooya Dayanim, a young Iranian American activist from Los Angeles who is also declining the White House invitation, put it, the Bush administration officials want to ask the Iranians, �What the hell is it that you people want?"

Ganji does have a message for the Bush administration, but it�s one he�s asking the press to convey for now. �I advocate change of the regime in Iran,� he says. �But that regime needs to be changed by Iranians themselves.�

UPDATE: An Iranian source just informed me that the entire meeting was cancelled.

LATER UPDATE: Odd. A colleague at the White House midday press briefing today sends word that Tony Snow said, "The Iranian event I talked about in the gaggle actually is taking place today." Stay tuned.

--Laura Rozen

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