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W&L Professor Has Mixture of Pride and Fear for His Native Iran

As he has watched events unfold in his homeland of Iran in recent days, Hojat Ghandi of Washington and Lee University has felt two principal emotions — pride and fear.

Ghandi, a visiting assistant professor of economics at W&L, credits the people in Iran for protesting the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the same time, he is pessimistic that the protests can successfully avoid what he fears may be at least 20 years of a police state and a dictatorship.

“It is very difficult to protest against the government in Iran,” said Ghandi, who came to the United States in 2001 to study at Virginia Tech.  “I have been in some of these demonstrations when I was a student in Iran. It is a very dangerous thing to do. You are arrested. They beat you. And for a young person, a student, to be arrested for protesting in a country where almost all of the job opportunities are with the government, that is very difficult, because you won’t have any chance getting a job in the government, or with a company doing business with the government.”

Given those dangers, Ghandi said that he is proud of those individuals who are trying to resist what is happening in his country. But his pride is tempered by his belief that the chances for the protests to result in new elections are all but nonexistent.

“I am afraid that the little bit of the political freedom that we had in Iran is gone now, and that feels really bad,” Ghandi said. “That is not what I wanted to see.”

In Ghandi’s opinion, the government’s ability to deprive the protestors of the tools they need to coordinate the protests is a critical factor in keeping the protests from spreading. Without the use of such communication technologies as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or text messaging, the protestors are unable to contact one another.

“Even calling into the country is difficult now,” he said. “I have tried to phone members of my family and have had considerable difficulty reaching them.”

Ghandi said that before the protests began, several newspapers in Iran had criticized Ahmadinejad and the government, but these papers have since been taken over by the Revolutionary Guard. Because the newspapers continue to operate and now write in support of the government, he believes many Iranians are unaware that stories and columns in those papers are no longer being written by the people who were previously writing them.

“It would be as if someone else took over Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times after Krugman had been put in jail,” Ghandi said. “Every newspaper that matters is like this. We had a few newspapers that were against the government, but now they are all gone, and that is the first time it has happened in the history of the country.”

Ghandi believes a response to potential protests was well-planned in advance of the elections, resulting in a kind of coup against anyone who would challenge the regime in Iran.  At this point, he said, those people who matter — the key human rights advocates, reformists, writers — have been arrested.

“If people let this happen, and if the world lets it happen, we will have 20 more years of a pure police state and a pure dictatorship very close to what we saw in Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq,” Ghandi said.  “That means one person is controlling the state, and everybody who is against him is in prison and is not free. That’s my fear, unless people don’t let it happen, and I don’t know how people can resist.”