I'm a little tired of "colored revolution" talk, mostly because what we've learned lately from Georgia and Ukraine is that getting rid of a bad government is the easy part; figuring out ways to institutionalize democratic governance is much, much harder.
There's not a lot of good news coming out of either country. Saakashvili has revealed himself to be the garden-variety post-Soviet tyrant that many already believed he was and the Ukrainians just this week forming a ruling coalition two months after the election.
So, when talk starts about a "Saffron Revolution" in Iran starts, I roll my eyes a bit. Be careful for what you wish for.
More to the point, I'm skeptical that preconditions for a color revolution in Iran are in place. Revolutions or "democratic transitions" or whatever you want to call them, don't happen spontaneously. I have about one million posts I could do on this topic (particularly on what happens when such conditions don't exist), but briefly, half a million people didn't just get up one morning in November and decide to go sit on Maidan in sub-freezing temperatures to demand the resignation of a criminal regime. Ukraine's criminal regime didn't decide to throw in the towel just because it was getting noisy out in front of Parliament.
Ukraine had, among many other things, a functioning civil society, active youth groups willing to take risks, somewhat organized political parties that offered a credible leadership alternative, media outlets that were not controlled by the government, wealthy people willing to chip in and an electorate fed up with the stealing, murdering and general criminality of the Kuchma regime.
Georgia had many (but not all) of the same pre-conditions, including a wildly unpopular president (Eduard Shevardnadze) who was still held in high esteem by the west. The opposition in both countries used stolen elections as a pretext to bring good old-fashioned political organizing together with people's outrage at the blatant abuse of political power. What both also have in common is assistance from the Serbian youth group OTPOR, which is also, it turns out, advising Iranian activists.
Other than help from Serbian youth, I'm not convinced Iran has much in common at all with Georgia and Ukraine.
So, with that bit of editorializing over, this is still a very interesting article in Jane's Intelligence Weekly by my friend Iason Athanasiadis, a Greek journalist who lived in Tehran for three years, about efforts to coax Iranians into activism. It's available only to subscribers and is rather long, but since I am quoted in it, I will post it in its entirety below. No promises on the links.
A Saffron Revolution in Iran?
A series of 'colour revolutions' have rippled across the post-Soviet world since Vaclav Havel's 1989 Velvet Revolution in the then Czechoslovakia. Taking place across Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Lebanon, they targeted authoritarian leaders with remarkably uniform tactics and a focus on media-friendly branding and peacefully mobilising crowds.
Dr Gene Sharp, a Boston-based academic and the author of From Dictatorship to Democracy , is one of the driving forces behind non-violent confrontation and inspiration of the colour revolution movement. In 1953, a few years before Sharp began developing his ideas, Iran was shaken by a CIA-sponsored coup d'etat that ousted the popular nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq with little bloodshed. Since at least 2005, Iran has been the focus of another Washington-designed campaign aimed at engineering regime-change in the Islamic Republic.
As the standoff between Iran and the US approaches a climax, Tehran has accused Washington of dirty tricks and points to the Department of State's 2005 allocation of USD75 million for 'democracy promotion'. Some of that money has funded democracy-promotion workshops in neighbouring countries where anti-regime Iranian activists are coached in how to peacefully overthrow their government.
"We needed to supply the Contras in Nicaragua and the mujahideen in Afghanistan with (weapons) but not to Solidarity in Poland or Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia," said Jack Wheeler, a conservative US commentator in a speech to the Council for National Policy. "Lech Walensa did not need Stinger missiles, he needed fax machines."
"All that has been done is to transfer the many detestable activities of the CIA to a new organisation whose name sounds good," said William Blum, the author of a book on US foreign policy titled Rogue State .
Wheeler supports the colour revolution policy and promotes regime change in Iran through the 'triple-u strategy' (uncontrollable urban unrest). He says: "The Basij thugs and Revolutionary Guards [Islamic Revolution Guards Corps] can put down a demonstration in Tabriz or on the campus at the University of Tehran. But there is a threshold of protest beyond which it can no longer be suppressed."
This year's arrests by the Iranian regime of four Iranian-Americans accused of seeking to foment a revolution in Iran was followed by televised confessions by two of the men that they were participating in peaceful attempts to overthrow the Islamic Republic. All four were later released. Iranian Minister of Intelligence Mohseni-Ejei has accused the Iranian women's movement of being a Trojan horse for Western influence in the country. He believes that Washington is investing far more than the Bush Administration's publicly stated USD75 million for democracy-promotion purposes.
"They take various non-governmental organisation members abroad to educate them," said Ejei in a 2 July press conference. "Recently, some people have been officially invited to be trained in the US under the pretext of attending scientific seminars or for business or employment. The initial financial assistance given to them is not enough to arouse the suspicion that they have been invited to be trained as spies."
In 2006, Iranian intelligence enrolled in human rights workshops operated by the Yale-affiliated Griffin Center for Health and Human Rights in Dubai by sending Iranian parliamentarians to attend them. Workshops have since been moved to locations in Cyprus, Spain and southern Turkey and analysts point out that Iran will be a tough nut to crack.
Iran's large population is the great unknown in this equation. After almost three tumultuous decades that saw the procession of a traumatising revolution, eight years of war against Iraq, constant pressure by the West and the rise and fall of the reformist movement, a good share of Iranians are simply averse to back any 'big bang' political disruption. They are fearful of the uncontrollable consequences inherent in any such processes as took place when the Islamist faction hijacked the 1979 revolution.
Efforts to foment upheaval in Iran are currently stalled at identifying and training networks of young activists in the far-flung urban centres dotting Iran's massive territory. This year, the US Department of State awarded the Internet and Democracy Project of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society a USD1.5 million to conduct research on the Iranian blogosphere. One of the stated intentions is to answer the question of "what groups of organisers and activists have not yet been reached by new social networking technology".
Those who are identified are invited to attend democracy promotion workshops in Dubai, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Spain where they are instructed in how to bring down a regime through non-violent resistance. In the words of one Iranian female participant who underwent instruction by former members of the Otpor movement that helped to overthrow the regime of Slobodan Milosevic: "They taught us what methods they used in Serbia to bring down Milosevic." She described how in class the participants assumed the personas of oppressed Iranian women or a Shia clergyman in roleplays designed to boost their capacity for empathy with diverse sections of their society and uniting them against the regime. Stress was laid on ridiculing the political elite as an effective tool for demythologising it in the peoples' eyes.
Anti-government activists inside Iran say they are making use of encrypted email such as the hacker-proof Hushmail service as well as an open-source software called Martus that employs cryptography to allow users to upload information to a server and erase incriminating files from their computer.
"The internet has totally revolutionised the way in which we communicate and freed us from the dangerous and incriminating, state-dominated telephone network," said Shirin, a university graduate in computer science and member of a banned opposition group that is active in Tehran.
The Iranian intelligence services have always moved quickly to arrest groups of students and other activists who they allege are involved in anti-regime efforts. "The critical point is how strong the government is and how willing it is to use force," said Christine Quirk, an Istanbul-based democracy transition consultant. "When people feel confident because they see a core group of people out in the streets who have not been shot, that's when the mass movement begins."
Genuine democratic transitions are a lot of hard work, produce unpredictable outcomes and are exceptionally risky. In Iran, it may be more cost-effective just to put the CIA back in charge.