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Iran's Stolen Election Has Sparked an Uprising -- What Should the U.S. Do?

Can the United States speed the process for greater freedom in Iran? Yes. By staying out of the way as much as possible.

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Some American neoconservative leaders argue that sustained air and missile strikes against Iranian government, nuclear, and military facilities would cripple the regime to a point that it would empower opponents to rise up against the government. In reality, Iranian opposition leaders emphasize that war and threat of war by the U.S. government would certainly unify the population around the regime and would be used to justify further repression.

The widely reported clandestine U.S. support for Kurdish, Baluchi, and other Iranian national minorities launched under the Bush administration runs the risk of igniting violent ethnic conflict and increased political repression in parts of the country, but these efforts are not likely to pose much of a threat to the survival of the regime either. In any case, it appears that the Obama administration has ended these programs.

In addition, the United States cannot realistically hope for a coup, given that pro-U.S. elements in the military were thoroughly purged soon after the revolution. The leadership of Iran's military and security forces, while not necessarily unified in support of the more hardline elements in government, cannot be realistically expected to collaborate with any U.S. efforts for regime change in their oil-rich country.

Strategic Nonviolent Action

What recent history has repeatedly shown is that the most effective means for democratic change comes from broadly based nonviolent movements, such as those that have toppled dictatorships in such diverse countries as the Philippines, Chile, Madagascar, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Indonesia, Serbia, Mali, Nepal, the Maldives, and elsewhere. Even the relatively conservative Washington-based Freedom House has produced a study that, after examining the 67 transitions from authoritarian regimes to varying degrees of democratic governments over the past few decades, concluded that the changes were catalyzed not through foreign invasion, and only rarely through armed revolt or voluntary elite-driven reforms, but overwhelmingly by democratic civil society organizations utilizing nonviolent action and other forms of civil resistance, such as strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and mass protests.

In apparent recognition of this trend, Congress in recent years has approved millions of dollars in funding to support various Iranian opposition groups to promote “regime change.” However, most of these groups are led by exiles who have virtually no following within Iran or any experience with the kinds of grassroots mobilization necessary to build a popular movement that could threaten the regime's survival. By contrast, most of the credible opposition within Iran has renounced this U.S. initiative and has asserted that it has simply made it easier for the regime to claim that all pro-democracy groups and activists are paid agents of the United States.

In an effort to head off such a popular uprising and discredit pro-democracy leaders and their supporters, Iran's reactionary leadership has been making false claims, aired in detail in a series of television broadcasts beginning in 2007, that certain Western nongovernmental organizations that have given workshops and offered seminars for Iranian pro-democracy activists on the theory and history of strategic nonviolent struggle are actually plotting with the U.S. government to overthrow the regime. On several occasions, Iranian authorities have arrested and tortured these activists, forcing them to sign phony confessions allegedly confirming these allegations.

Some Western bloggers and other writers, understandably skeptical of U.S. intervention in oil-producing nations in the name of "democracy," have actually bought into these claims by Iran's hardline clerics that prominent nonviolent activists from Europe and the United States -- most of whom happen to be highly critical of U.S. policy toward Iran -- are somehow working as U.S. agents. These conspiracy theories have in turn been picked up by some progressive websites and periodicals, which repeat them as fact. Unfortunately, such accusations do little more than strengthen the hand of Iran's repressive regime, weaken democratic forces inside the country, and strengthen the argument of U.S. neoconservatives that only U.S. intervention -- and not nonviolent struggle by the Iranian people themselves -- is capable of freeing the county.

Historically, individuals and groups with experience in effective mass nonviolent mobilization tend to come from the left and carry a skeptical view of government power, particularly governments with a history of militarism and conquest. Conversely, large bureaucratic governments used to projecting political power through military force or elite diplomatic channels have little understanding or appreciation of mass popular struggles. As a result, the dilemma for U.S. policy-makers is that the most realistic way to democratize Iran is through a process the United States cannot control.

The U.S. government has historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coups d'etat and other kinds of violent seizures of power by an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent "people power" movements, by contrast, promote regime change through empowering pro-democratic majorities. Unlike fomenting a military coup or supporting a military occupation, which are based upon control over the population and repression of potential political opponents, nonviolent civil insurrections -- as a result of being based upon a broad coalition of popular movements -- are virtually impossible for an outside power to control.

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