The Dissident Goes to Hollywood

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Iranian dissident writer Akbar Ganji was speaking to an audience of about 80 people Wednesday night, when a good-looking, older fellow in a white windbreaker started to ask something from the back of the room. The question, delivered thoughtfully and without pause, concerned the fierce, saber-rattling rhetoric of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Suddenly, Ganji's interpreter went ashen-faced. "My god!" she said aloud. "Is that Warren Beatty?"

Yes, it was. Beatty, along with wife Annette Bening — as well as Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and others — had gathered at the palatial home of legendary producer Mike Medavoy to hear the investigative journalist speak about the current state of the Middle East and, specifically, Iran. Only recently released from an Iranian prison after serving a six-year sentence for "harming national security" and "spreading propaganda," Ganji, 47, is barnstorming the U.S. this summer to gain support for his reformist movement. He declined an invitation to the White House last month, claiming he doesn't represent a specific opposition party or faction. But this week, he seemed right at home in Hollywood.

Until, that is, he began speaking about Israel. Perhaps still smarting from Mel Gibson's drunken anti-semitic rant, Ganji seemed to hit a raw nerve when he appeared to equate Jewish (and Christian) fundamentalists with Islamic extremists. "The U.S. has to stop its one-sided support of Israel," said Ganji, speaking in a large screening room adorned with an original Jasper Johns and other post-modernist art. That comment and others raised the hackles of many in attendance, including multibillionaire media mogul Haim Saban, who asked, "When was the last time you saw a Christian or a Jew put a belt around their stomach, go on a bus, and kill innocent women and children?"

For the most part, however, the crowd listened in earnest to the articulate and occasionally poetic Ganji, who alternated between sounding like a pragmatic realist and a utopian hippie as he spoke of disarming the world's nuclear weapons to enjoy peace, love and understanding. He was almost dismissive of Ahmadinejad, claiming the Iranian president has no real power other than as the mouthpiece of the country's Supreme Leader. "Ahmadinejad says he wants to destroy Israel — can anyone believe that joke?" asked Ganji. "These are empty slogans to appeal to the masses... You shouldn't be that afraid, but we [Iranians] should be afraid." Ganji's main fear, it seems, revolves around Iran's use of black-market nuclear material, which he believes could result in a Chernobyl-type environmental disaster in his homeland.

Penn, who helped organize the event, said he had heard of Ganji constantly when he visited the Middle East and wrote up his trip as a five-part series for the San Francisco Chronicle. "I like anybody who makes me say what I think — he does," said Penn. As the discussion ended later in the evening, the Hollywood crowd mingled around, soaking in all that they had heard. But at least one person in the room had another agenda in mind. "Let's go see Warren Beatty!" said Ganji's interpreter excitedly, as she corralled her charge and led him out to the hallway where they posed with the actor for a photo.