Iran's Do-It-Yourself Revolution
Facing an unprecedented popular uprising against his autocratic rule and his apparently fraudulent re-election, Iran's right-wing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has attempted to blame the United States. A surprising number of bloggers on the left have rushed to the defense of the right-wing fundamentalist leader. Citing presidential directives under the Bush administration, they argue that the uprising isn't as much about a stolen election, the oppression of women, censorship, severe restrictions on political liberties, growing economic inequality, and other grievances, as it is about the result of U.S. interference.
Meanwhile, critics on the right - who have shown little concern about democracy in other countries in the region that are just as oppressive yet more willing to support U.S. military and economic objectives have rushed to attack Obama for not intervening enough in Iran. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), for instance, insisted that the president should "come out more strongly" in support of the protesters.
The sordid history of U.S. intervention in Iran has made it easy for that country's hard-ine theocratic leadership to blame the United States for the unrest. Indeed, the United States is guilty of many crimes against that country. It overthrew Iran's last democratic government back in1953. Subsequently, the United States armed and trained the Shah's dreaded SAVAK secret police. In the 1980s, Washington supported Saddam Hussein's war against Iran and, in the "tanker war" of 1987-88, the United States bombed Iranian coastal facilities, targeted ships, and shot down a civilian airliner. There was the arming of Kurdish and Baluchi separatists as well as the threats of war over Iran's civilian nuclear program (even as Washington continued to support neighboring states that have developed nuclear weapons arsenals). And in recent years, the United States allocated tens of millions of dollars to opposition groups for the express purpose of "regime change."
Despite this record of intervention, the United States has had nothing to do with the massive unarmed insurrection against the Iranian regime.
The Iranian regime and some of its apologists have tried to connect the homegrown protests now occurring in Iran with the U.S.-sponsored coup of 1953. At that time, CIA operatives bribed local leaders in South Tehran to lead riots in an effort to destabilize the nationalist government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq.
This is a totally spurious analogy, however. First of all, the CIA operatives on the ground in Iran today are mostly likely involved in efforts to infiltrate the intelligence service and nuclear program, and engage in other kinds of espionage and intelligence gathering. The CIA is a poor vehicle for fomenting revolution from below. It has been notoriously poor at understanding developments on the ground in Iran. Just weeks ago, U.S. officials dismissed Mir Houssein Mousavi, whose suspicious loss in the recent elections prompted the uprising, as simply a less provocative face of the same old regime. Indeed, the degree of protests has clearly caught U.S. officials off guard. In any case, no foreign intelligence agency has ever demonstrated such an ability to provoke such a mass uprising.
The CIA-inspired mob actions in 1953 consisted of thousands of people, but was well short of the hundreds of thousands who have taken to the streets since the apparent stolen election. These recent large demonstrations have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, while the 1953 unrest largely consisted of rioting, with widespread vandalism, arson, and assaults against civilians. The riots of 56 years ago took place exclusively in Tehran, while the recent demonstrations have taken place in cities and towns across the country for well over a week, despite often-brutal oppression.
More critically, the 1953 coup itself did not result from massive protests, but because armed police and military units seized key buildings and the government radio station, and attacked Mossadeq's home. There were heavy exchanges of gunfire and artillery throughout Tehran neighborhoods that housed government facilities; over 100 people died in the battle in front of the prime minister's house. Mossadeq finally surrendered as tank columns moved into the city and General Zahedi installed himself as prime minister, calling for the return of the Shah.
In short, the circumstances surrounding the 1953 coup have little in common with the events of 2009.
Blaming the Other
When popular armed socialist revolutionary movements swept Central America in the 1980s, U.S. officials and their right-wing allies insisted that these uprisings were not about resisting oppressive military-dominated regimes, death squads, endemic poverty, or social injustice. Rather, they argued, the Soviet Union was pulling the strings of what they considered puppet movements to seize control of these countries, as part of their grand communist plot to take over the world. According to this theory - constantly repeated on the floor of Congress, on op-ed pages, and in reports from conservative think tanks - Moscow and their Cuban allies were "exporting revolution" by forcing otherwise content peasants, workers, and others to rebel against legitimate governments.
In a similar manner, since the end of the Cold War Washington has tried to blame Iran for a wide range of activities: attacks on U.S. occupation forces in Iraq, unrest in Bahrain against that island's autocratic monarchy, the rise of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, growing support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Generally the left, through its understanding of broader structural causes for social and political problems, has recognized that popular uprisings against repressive governments grow out of certain objective social conditions rather than as a result of outsiders stirring up trouble. Unfortunately, a surprising number of leftists in the United States and other Western countries, aware of very real imperialist machinations by the U.S. government elsewhere, have argued that popular civil insurrections against autocratic regimes are part of some grand U.S. conspiracy.
Anticipating a similar challenge to their increasingly unpopular rule, Iranian leaders began insisting a couple years ago that the popular pro-democracy uprisings in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine earlier this decade were an American plot to advance U.S. imperialism. In a broadcast on state television in July 2007, for instance, the Iranian regime claimed that Serbian student activist Ivan Marovic, one of the leaders of the successful nonviolent uprising against Milosevic in 2000, had met with President George W. Bush in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava in 2005 to plot the overthrow of the Iranian government. In reality, their "meeting" - which was photographed and widely circulated in Iran - consisted of a three-minute conversation in the midst of a group reception and didn't include any mention of Iran. Marovic, an outspoken left-wing critic of U.S. imperialism, later described how he found Bush to be profoundly ignorant of and apparently disinterested in nonviolent resistance of the kind he and his Serbian colleagues successfully utilized in their pro-democracy movement.
In another bizarre episode, in February last year, Iranian government television informed viewers that Gene Sharp, the elderly theorist of strategic nonviolent action who works out of his tiny home office in a working-class neighborhood in Boston, was "one of the CIA agents in charge of America's infiltration into other countries." It included a computer-animated sequence of Sharp with John McCain and other officials in a White House conference room plotting the overthrow of the Iranian regime. In reality, Sharp has never worked with the CIA, has never met McCain, and has never even been to the White House.
U.S. Funding for Opposition Movements
The U.S. government has provided financial support for opposition groups in a number of countries, including Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. It has also provided seminars and other training for opposition leaders in campaign strategies. However, in none of these cases did the U.S. government provide any training, advice, or strategic support that resulted in overturning these regimes. Nor did the U.S. government or any U.S. government-funded entity ever provide operational funding or subsidies for any nonviolent action campaign. In any case, this limited amount of outside financial support cannot cause nonviolent liberal democratic revolutions to take place any more than the limited Soviet financial and material support for leftist movements in previous decades caused armed socialist revolutions to take place. No amount of money could force hundreds of thousands of people to leave their jobs, homes, schools, and families to face down heavily armed police and tanks, unless they had a sincere motivation to do so.
The Bush administration certainly did attempt to subvert and destabilize Iran through funding opposition groups. While continuing to back repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other countries, Congress approved the administration's request for $75 million in funding to support "regime change" in Iran. However, few serious dissident organizations within the country accepted such support money from the U.S. government.
Indeed, more than two dozen Iranian-American and human rights groups formally protested the program, arguing that "Iranian reformers believe democracy cannot be imported and must be based on indigenous institutions and values. Intended beneficiaries of the funding - human rights advocates, civil society activists and others - uniformly denounce the program." As president of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi noted, "While the Iranian government has not needed a pretext to harass its own population, it would behoove Congress not to provide it with one."
Virtually the only ones to accept such funding were exiles who had very few followers within Iran and no experience with the kinds of grassroots mobilization necessary to build a popular movement that could threaten the regime's survival.
In an even more counterproductive venture, the Bush administration began arming and supporting Kurdish and Baluchi separatists. The Obama administration ceased its support for these groups within days of taking office, formally labeling them terrorist groups. Ironically, Republicans are now attacking the administration for thus abandoning Iran's pro-democracy struggle at the same time that Ahmadinejad and his supporters are citing these now-discarded efforts as proof of U.S. complicity in the current uprising.
Learning from History, Not Foreigners
Uprisings like the one witnessed in recent weeks have occurred with some regularity in Iran since the late 1800s. Indeed, the idea of Americans having to teach Iranians about massive nonviolent resistance is like Americans teaching Iranians to cook the Persian stew fesenjan.
Iranians successfully rose up against economic concessions to the British in 1890. The Constitutional Revolution of 1905 against the corrupt rule of the Shah and regional nobles led to the emergence of an elected parliament and financial reforms. The uprising against the U.S.-backed Shah in the late 1970s brought down that autocratic monarchy. In each of these cases, the tactics were remarkably similar to those used in the weeks following the contested elections: strikes, boycotts, mass protests, and other forms of nonviolent action. The Iranians are learning from their history, not from Americans.
Though the subsequent Islamist regime has proven to be at least as repressive, the legacy of the largely nonviolent overthrow of the Shah remains an inspiration for Iranians still struggling for their freedom. Indeed, the current movement has consciously adopted many of the symbols and tactics of the 1978-79 period. There is the use of green (the color of Islam) as the movement's identifying color. Demonstrators in Tehran, Tabriz, Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz, and other cities have gathered at the same locations of anti-Shah rallies. Protesters chant "Death to the Dictatorship" during demonstrations and shout "Allah Akbar" (God is Great!) from the rooftops. Demonstrators place their palms in the blood spilled by a killed or injured comrade and pressing the red palm print on a nearby wall as a sign of martyrdom.
Yet scores of leftist bloggers are trying to convince people that all this was something planned and organized by Americans over the past few months. There is something profoundly ethnocentric in arguing that civil insurrections and other pro-democracy campaigns have to be launched from Washington and that Iranians (like Eastern Europeans) are incapable of organizing a popular movement on their own. This argument simply adds weight to the neocons' insistence that democracy can only take hold in Middle Eastern countries through U.S. intervention.
The future of Iran belongs in the hands of the Iranians. The best thing the United States can do to support a more open and pluralistic society in that country is to stay out of the way. It does a gross disservice to those putting their lives on the line in towns and cities across Iran to fail to recognize the genuine indigenous origins of this popular movement.
© 2009 Foreign Policy In Focus