Saturday, July 10, 2010

How to Support the Struggle for Iran's Soul Part II


by Ilan Berman


2nd part of 2


Harnessing Iran's Blogosphere

With Internet penetration estimated at over 25 percent of Iran's population of seventy million, the Islamic Republic already ranks among the most "wired" nations in the Middle East.[29] This online community is both dynamic and vibrant; Iran is estimated to have some 60,000 or more active weblogs, making it the third largest blogosphere in the world (after the United States and China).[30] It is not by accident that telecommunications capabilities and the Internet have been routinely interrupted since the June 12 election. Simply put, Iran's leaders are deeply and justifiably afraid of the transformative power of the Internet. If harnessed effectively, Iran's blogosphere can serve as a potent tool to highlight the shortcomings of the Islamic Republic. It can also provide Western policymakers with far greater understanding of the internal dynamics at play within the Iranian political system.

An important first step in this regard is to facilitate the interaction between Iranian bloggers and Western media. Over the past year, a number of Western newspapers have provided forums for Iranian activists and dissidents to report and provide context on the events taking place within Iran.[31] Such contributions, however, have been sporadic and ad hoc, even after the outbreak of unrest in June. Nor have news blogs such as Tehran Bureau, which was influential in reporting the early stages of post-election protests, managed to sustain the West's attention over time.

Consistent input from these blogosphere sources is essential to informed policymaking. Simply put, without a good understanding of the evolving human terrain within Iran, Western capitals will find it impossible to formulate an accurate picture of the Iranian political scene and determine the most effective avenues to influence events there. To this end, Western media outlets should be encouraged to create a consortium of trusted Iranian bloggers to report regularly on events within Iran and to analyze their long-term implications. Such bloggers would not only serve to enrich Western reporting on events in Iran, they would provide policymakers and the general public alike much needed nuance and context as they attempt to navigate the rapidly changing Iranian political scene.

Helping the Opposition to Coordinate

During the summer of 2003, a resurgence of anti-regime protests rocked the Islamic Republic. Over the course of several weeks, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities in a sustained series of demonstrations—the largest since the student uprising of 1999, which was bloodily suppressed by the regime. Foreign broadcasting outlets such as the Los Angeles-based National Iranian Television aided Iranian opposition leaders by allowing them to use their airwaves to coordinate activities and seek support from Iranians inside and outside the country.

Unable to put an end to such foreign broadcasting itself, Iran turned to Fidel Castro's Cuba. Within days, Havana began using a Russian-built electronic warfare facility to jam both U.S. government and private broadcasts into the Islamic Republic.[32] The interference eliminated a crucial outlet for political information and organization for Iranian protesters, effectively neutralizing the nascent democratic protests at a critical time as they had begun to spread across the country.

Little has changed since. Although some in Congress have attempted to deter Iran's suppression of foreign broadcasts, these steps remain ineffective. A notable effort was the Iran Human Rights Act introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (Republican of Kansas) in 2006. This piece of legislation outlined that the president "may impose diplomatic and, if necessary, economic sanctions on foreign governments or entities that assist the government of Iran in jamming, blocking, or otherwise preventing the free transmission of United States Government radio and television broadcasts into Iran." The Iran Human Rights Act, however, did not pass review by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was ultimately shelved by its sponsors. Iran's opposition, meanwhile, still lacks reliable, independent means for communicating and coordinating. But the West can help on this score. During the Cold War, the United States actively provided Soviet dissidents and opposition movements in the Soviet bloc with the technological tools to organize more efficiently.[33] The United States has the power to do much the same today. By discreetly supplying Iran's opposition with communications equipment such as satellite phones, Washington could provide them with a low-cost, resilient way to coordinate with each other and with supporters outside the country.

International Focus on Iranian Dissidents

Who are Iran's future leaders? Today, the Green Movement remains chaotic and unfocused. Its most recognizable figures—failed presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi—are hardly authentic champions of the opposition. On the contrary, both are establishment politicians: Mousavi served as prime minister from 1981 to 1989, the period during which the Islamic Republic established the Lebanese terrorist powerhouse Hezbollah and restarted the shah's nuclear program, this time with a military bent. Karroubi, for his part, served as speaker of Iran's parliament, the majles, from 1989 to 1992, and again from 2000 to 2004. Despite some reformist views, neither seeks to dismantle the Islamic Republic. Rather, both appear to be trying to preserve it, albeit in a form more palatable to the West.

Skeptics have highlighted the resulting leadership vacuum in arguing against the Iranian opposition's chances of success.[34] These arguments, however, are ahistoric. It is useful to recall that, at its start, Poland's powerful Solidarity movement lacked clear and cohesive leadership. Figures such as Lech Walesa emerged over time, bringing with them the ideological cohesion and political power that helped Poland ultimately shrug off the communist yoke. At least some recent instances of grassroots revolution, such as the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the Cedar Uprising in Lebanon the same year, have followed similar evolutionary paths (albeit with very different results).

Moreover, a cadre of activists capable of such leadership already exists within Iran. These nascent leaders come from all walks of life. They include union organizers such as Mansour Ossanlou,[35] now incarcerated in Tehran's Evin Prison for agitating on behalf of greater rights for Iran's bus drivers, and clerics such as Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei,[36] widely tipped to be the spiritual successor to recently deceased dissident Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri. These individuals may vary in their world-views and political agendas, but they share a common bond as enemies of the clerical state.

Currently, the international community has little familiarity with these voices, but it would be better if it did. During the Cold War, Western politicians were intimately familiar with the identities of political prisoners, dissident activists, and others persecuted for opposing Soviet rule and agitated regularly on their behalf during diplomatic parlays with their Soviet counterparts. A similar focus today could provide much needed international attention to Tehran's most potent adversaries, restraining the regime from dealing with them quite as ruthlessly and infusing regime opponents with a renewed sense of political direction.

The Future in the Balance

Today, Iranian politics are dominated by a deep divide. On one side is Iran's repressive theocratic regime—a clerical junta that ranks as the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism and which is hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear capability. On the other are the people of Iran—a vibrant constituency that holds the future of the country in its hands. The course of their confrontation will determine the nature of the Iranian state and its place in the world for years to come.

For the United States and its allies, this struggle carries enormous consequences. The emergence of a more accountable, pluralistic regime in Tehran would allay—if not eliminate—mounting concerns over Iran's emerging nuclear capability and regional adventurism. Such a regime could create the conditions necessary for the historic rapprochement between Washington and Tehran so sought after by the Obama administration. As it adapts its Iran policy, the White House should make every effort to support the forces of pluralism there in order to make such an outcome more likely.


Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.



[1] The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, D.C.: The White House, Sept. 2002).
[2] The New York Times, Dec. 21, 2002; CNN News, Dec. 21, 2002.
[3] "Iran All-Spigot Funding Chart," White House, Office of Management and Budget, July 18, 2008.
[4] Ibid.
[5] The New York Sun, Nov. 8, 2007.
[6] Bari Weiss and David Feith, "Denying the Green Revolution," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 23, 2009.
[7] The Boston Globe, Oct. 6, 2009.
[8] Weiss and Feith, "Denying the Green Revolution."
[9] Mehdi Khalaji, Patrick Clawson, Michael Singh, and Mohsen Sazegara, "Iran's 'Election': What Happened? What Does It Mean?" Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, D.C., Policy Watch, no. 1537, June 18, 2009.
[10] Associated Press, Jan. 21, 2010.
[11] "Iran, Islamic Republic of: Background" United Nations Childrens' Fund (UNICEF), accessed Feb. 10, 2010.
[12] The Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2005.
[13] Press TV (Tehran), July 20, 2009; Evgeny Morozov, "Are Iranian Authorities More Sophisticated than We Think?" Foreign Policy, July 10, 2009.
[14] See, for example, "Iran: Stop 'Framing' Government Critics," Human Rights Watch, New York, July 21, 2009.
[15] The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 3, 2009.
[16] Reuters, Nov. 14, 2009; Associated Press, Nov. 26, 2009; The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 6, 2010.
[17] "A Glance at Iran: Population," Statistical Centre of Iran, Vice-Presidency for Strategic Planning and Supervision, Islamic Republic of Iran, accessed Feb. 10, 2010.
[18] The Boston Globe, Nov. 4, 2009.
[19] The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 9, 2010.
[20] "Interview, Embassy-Hostage-Turned-U.S. Envoy Compares '79 to Iran Today," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Jan. 6, 2010.
[21] See, for example, Rep. Mark Kirk, remarks before the United States Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C., Nov. 4, 2009.
[22] "Trade, Countries, Iran," European Commission, Brussels, June 1, 2009.
[23] Final Act, Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, Helsinki, Aug. 1, 1975.
[24] Jeffrey Gedmin, "Our Iranian Colleagues Believe in Radio Farda's Mission," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2008, pp. 53-6.
[25] "Broadcasting Board of Governors Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Request," Washington D.C., p. 25, accessed Feb. 12, 2010.
[26] "Draft: A Study of USG Broadcasting into Iran Prepared for the Iran Steering Committee," U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Sept. 14, 2006, p. 1.
[27] The Washington Times, Apr. 14, 2009.
[28] "Draft: A Study of USG Broadcasting into Iran," p. 1; J. Scott Carpenter, "Challenging Iran on Human Rights," The Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2010.
[29] Freedom on the Net: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media (Richmond, Va.: Freedom House, Apr. 1, 2009), p. 70.
[30] See, for example, Shawn Woodley, "Iran: On Blogs and Ballots," Diplomatic Courier, June 14, 2009.
[31] See, for example, Heshmat Tabarzadi, "What I See on the Frontline in Iran," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 17, 2009.
[32] The Washington Times, July 16, 2003.
[33] "Memorandum for the 303 Committee," Nixon Intelligence Files, Subject Files, USSR. Secret. Eyes Only, National Security Council, Washington, D.C., Dec. 9, 1969.
[34] See, for example, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, "Another Iranian Revolution? Not Likely," The New York Times, Jan. 6, 2010.
[35] "Rights Crisis Escalates: Faces and Cases from Ahmadinejad's Crackdown," International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, New York, Sept. 20, 2008.
[36] The Christian Science Monitor (Boston), Jan. 6, 2010.


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