Before proceeding, I should indicate what my own biases are regarding the Iranian election protests. First, I have no love for either of the major contenders, whether Mir Hosein Mousavi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or any Ayatollah. I also have no “hatred” for Ahmadinejad and I appreciate his tough stance against the U.S. and Israel. Second, I suspect that there might have been some electoral fraud, but there is no publicly available evidence yet for anything other than voting irregularities that in themselves do not amount to evidence of fraud. Third — and this pertains to the focus of the article below — I do not believe that the Iranian protests were either “instigated” or “orchestrated” by foreign interests, whether media, NGOs, or government agencies. I do not think that the Iranian people are mindless pawns ready to snap into suicidal anti-government actions because of the desires of a foreign power; if I believed otherwise, it would be granting foreign powers with nearly magical, super human qualities, and Iranians would be credited with the opposite. Likewise, I do not believe that one can defeat imperialism by devouring one’s own people and showing them merciless cruelty, while pronouncing that their own constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and assembly are “illegal” — assuming that I have even understood what has actually transpired in Iran these past weeks. Fourth, it is depressing to see a situation where the only options discussed seem to swing between authoritarian Islamic rule, Western ideas of socialism, or Western consumerist individualism — to the extent that these delineate the terrain of debate, and I am not sure that they do, then all sides would appear to be utterly hopeless. It can sometimes look like a clash between Eurocentrism and its inversions, at least from afar.
Cause or Correspondence?
To assert that foreign powers could engineer a local upheaval is usually far fetched, even when discussing so-called micro-states with all of their proclaimed external vulnerabilities. Among leftist Chilean scholars, there was considerable debate as to whether the CIA played a fundamental or an incidental role, with some proposing that the military coup of 11 September 1973 might have happened even without American support, and that there was genuine local opposition to the government of Salvador Allende, who had not won the majority of votes. In the case of Grenada in 1983, where the U.S. military invasion would leave no doubt about American interests, the fact remains that what opened the door to the invasion was factional strife within the ruling New Jewel Movement leading to a coup d’etat, the murder of the Prime Minister by his supposed comrades, and the imprisonment of key figures in the government. The U.S. did not orchestrate that schism. In some respects, Iran today mirrors elements of both of these cases, with deep cleavages in the ruling elite, and genuine local discontent.
However, to assert that foreign powers do not try to manipulate the course of events, do not try to spread misinformation, do not seek to curry favour with certain factions, and do not have an exploitative interest in the development and outcome of local political processes, is not only equally far fetched, it is patently false. In the cases above, in both Chile and Grenada, the U.S. played a fundamental role in shaping and influencing post-coup events. Nobody can argue that the United States, Israel, Britain, and Canada have a merely neutral and dispassionate stance to the unfolding events in Iran. Not wanting to credit them with possession of magical bullets that can fell any opponent does not entitle us to dismiss their actual interests and involvements. We have be to just as wary of overwrought and maybe naive leftist conspiracy theories (Petras) as we have to be wary of irresponsible, sometimes also leftist, theories of the primacy and exclusiveness of local dynamics (Zizek).
The left is divided as to the unit of analysis — the local state alone, or the local state and foreign states in combination — as well as to the direction of causality. The right is also divided, between interventionists and isolationists, between the usual hawks and doves. Indeed, the very usefulness of the notion of there being a “political spectrum” falls to ruin, as we see mirrors and refractions of every position in almost every other.
The point is not to confront confusion with nuanced ambiguity, but with clarity. One element of that needed clarity is to understand the nature and extent of foreign political interests in exploiting Iranian political processes, and in this I am aided by the words of some of the key actors themselves.
The government of Iran has recently accused foreign powers of “meddling” in Iranian affairs. On this point, I agree. Meddling is not orchestration. Meddling is seeking to influence local affairs in the hope of altering them to suit certain interests. In this case the Iranian regime is not displaying the power of the conspiratorial imagination; it is displaying the power of literacy.
U.S. “Democracy Promotion” in Iran
One actor at work in allegedly promoting democracy in Iran is Kenneth R. Timmerman (see here and here) a journalist, writer, and founder and current executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran (also see here and here).
According to SourceWatch, the FDI received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit organization funded by the U.S. Congress. It was initially established by the Reagan administration in 1983, with the task of engaging in “private diplomacy” against foreign governments, also undertaking “cloak and ballot” operations. The NED has shown a consistent interest in “democracy promotion” in Iran. The NED also serves as the secretariat of the World Movement for Democracy which in 2000 admitted “Iran’s Pro-Democracy Student Movement” to its World Steering Committee (see page 2). While at this very moment the WMD is staying publicly silent on Iran, a quick search of its site also reveals its consistent interest in supporting students in Iran.
The FDI is one of the first, if not the first, source of the allegations that Hezbollah fighters have been imported by Iran to beat protesters — as “proof” it provides two photos under the 18 June 2009 entry on its site, showing a few unremarkable fellows standing in front of the camera, some against a backdrop consisting of a sign written in Farsi. That’s it. We do not know who they are, where they came from, whether or not they are actually Lebanese or even anywhere in the Middle East, the date of the photos, their location and, most importantly, we do not see them anywhere near any protesters. This has not stopped people from seeding Twitter in an attempt to misinform and alarm, presumably with a hope of generating a rift between Iranians and their nation’s allies, while furthering the cause of both Israel and the U.S. (this tweet takes us to this blog post, which uses the FDI photos and then adds allegations of Hamas involvement — courtesy of the Jerusalem Post of course — and from that blog we are taken to a presumably Iranian dissident blog that repeats the allegations. Note that while accompanied by visual materials, no photos of these mysterious Hezbollah and Hamas people engaged in anti-protest action are ever supplied, and corroborated).
On Mousavi’s Trail
The FDI’s Kenneth Timmerman in “State Department Backs ‘Reformists’ in Wild Iranian Election,” has been noted for writing about a “green revolution” before the elections were even held — “there’s the talk of a ‘green revolution’ in Tehran, named for the omnipresent green scarves and banners that fill the air at Mousavi campaign events” — which may not be conclusive without further elaboration since “revolution” in this case might mean an expected landslide, and Timmerman is no admirer of Mousavi either. More interesting is Timmerman, writing as if he were an outside observer, about the role of the NED:
The National Endowment for Democracy has spent millions of dollars during the past decade promoting “color” revolutions in places such as Ukraine and Serbia, training political workers in modern communications and organizational techniques.
Some of that money appears to have made it into the hands of pro-Mousavi groups, who have ties to non-governmental organizations outside Iran that the National Endowment for Democracy funds.
While some opposition parties in Iran called for a boycott of the elections, Mousavi did not. Instead, the U.S. government’s Voice of America banned those calling for a boycott from its airwaves. One Iranian opposition member commented to Timmerman, “it’s as if the State Department and Voice of America had become campaign advisers to Mousavi.”
Timmerman also tells us that “Saeed Behbehani, the owner of Mihan TV in suburban Washington, D.C., says he recently spoke with a well-known Iranian-American businessman who boasts of his ties to the State Department and who just returned from a trip to Dubai. The businessman said he met with Mousavi’s campaign manager, Mehdi Khazali.”
Mousavi himself is no stranger to making pacts with Iran’s devils, as Iran’s Prime Minister during the 1980s. According to an article in the Washington Post for 21 March 1987, Mousavi’s government purchased weapons through Israel, and considered opening a political dialogue with the West. Even then, according to an 8 November 1986 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mousavi was emroiled in leadership splits over the succession to Ayatollah Khomeini. Mousavi has a number of shadowy foreign connections as well, “including an expatriate Iranian arms supplier who lives on the French Riviera” who played a role in the Iran-Contra scandal, according to a 16 November 1986 article in the Chicago Tribune.
As mentioned before, Timmerman is no fan of Mousavi’s, going as far as to assert that Mousavi was one of the founding members of the Lebanese Hezbollah, in an article titled, “‘Reformist’ Iranian Candidate Founded Hezbollah.” Now this is odd: why would Hezbollah then agree to go to Iran to beat up Mousavi’s followers, as Timmerman’s FDI asserts? It makes no apparent sense, unless the aim is to confuse, cover tracks, and have multiple cakes and eat them too.
U.S. Operations in Iran
In Seymour Hersh’s July 2008 article in the New Yorker, “Preparing the Battlefield: The Bush Administration steps up its secret moves Against Iran,” the U.S. Congress agreed to provide up to $400 million for covert activities in Iran which would involve “support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations”. He also reveals that U.S. Special Operations Forces have conducted cross-border operations from southern Iraq into Iran since at least 2007 — but “the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly expanded”. Personnel, material, and money have also been inserted into Iran from a base in western Afghanistan. The overall CIA mission is not to engage in assasinations, but rather it is “about gathering information, enlisting support”. Leading Democrats who agreed to the operations include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Would Obama’s election make any difference? A member of the House Appropriations Committee told Hersh that, even with a Democratic victory in November, “it will take another year before we get the intelligence activities under control,” and that is assuming that there would be any change of plans under Obama which, so far, have not been reported.
Other news media have produced similar and related reports of U.S. funded operations in Iran, some of them involving acts of violence by armed elements of ethnic minorities. On 25 February 2007 the Telegraph published “US funds terror groups to sow chaos in Iran,” whose primary destabilization efforts were to put pressure on Iran to not seek nuclear weapons. However, that assumed goal changed when on 27 May 2007 the Telegraph published another article, “Bush sanctions ‘black ops’ against Iran,” that stated that CIA-directed “black operations” now had a more ambitious aim, that of bringing about “regime change” in Iran:
“Mr Bush has signed an official document endorsing CIA plans for a propaganda and disinformation campaign intended to destabilise, and eventually topple, the theocratic rule of the mullahs”.
Terrorist attacks within Iran, and directed specifically against Ahmadinejad’s campaign, spiked just prior to the recent elections.
In addition, the CIA would seek to use Iranian expatriates in the U.S. for their communication networks with friends and relatives back home. With greater relevance to current efforts by Iranian dissidents to communicate on the web with the outside world, the above article stated that the CIA was also allowed “to supply communications equipment which would enable opposition groups in Iran to work together and bypass internet censorship by the clerical regime”.
In many postings on Twitter, one frequently reads references to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., narrating, encouraging, and praising Iranian protesters. In “The American Hand in Iran,” in Asia Times on 5 July 2005, Trish Schuh tells us of an effort to send Bush’s message of “democratic revolution” from “Beirut to Tehran”. One actor seeking to send that message, and “winning hearts and minds,” is “Swift boat Veterans for Truth” member Jerome Corsi, whose NGO, the Iran Freedom Foundation (IFF), inaugurated a 12-day “Iran Freedom Walk” from Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell to Washington, DC in 2005:
Dipping two fingers in red paint, Corsi waved a peace sign in solidarity “with the blood of oppressed Iranians” and called on “the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King“. He declared, “I love the Iranian people. America does not hate the Persian people. We love the Persian people. We want peace and we love the Persian people.” Corsi’s voice then dropped to a whisper; “We stand here today and we pray in the name of the gods. I embrace Jesus Christ as my savior – and we also pray in the name of Allah, Zoroaster and the B’hai.”
This is a change of tune for Corsi, who previously likened Islam to cancer, a virus, a Satanic faith. (As a footnote, it should also be noted, to further corroborate Glenn Greenwald‘s piece on how elements of the “bomb Iran” crowd are suddenly very outspoken in their concern for “the Iranian people,” that one of the very founders of the FDI itself, Joshua Muravchik, is the author of a 19 November 2006 article in the Los Angeles Times titled, “Bomb Iran,” whose lead sentence is: “WE MUST bomb Iran”.)
Speaking on a Farsi radio station in Los Angeles (“Tehrangeles”), Schuh tells us, Corsi revealed that he had previously worked for the U.S. government:
“When I was a young man I was an expert in antiterrorism and political violence. I had a top secret clearance when I was in universities and I worked to assist the State Department and the government.” Corsi’s publisher, Cumberland House, states in his biography that Corsi’s top secret clearance came from the government agency US Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID has often served as a conduit for American covert operations funding, under humanitarian auspices.
Corsi, according to Schuh, also aided Senator Rick Santorum in drafting the Iran Freedom Support Act, which would eventually provide up to $50 million to NGOs working to support democratic change along the lines of the various coloured revolutions of eastern Europe, a projection of “soft power” that has now become fashionable in Washington. In Section 402 of the Act, we read:
(1) IN GENERAL- The President is authorized to provide financial and political assistance (including the award of grants) to foreign and domestic individuals, organizations, and entities that support democracy and the promotion of democracy in Iran. Such assistance may include the award of grants to eligible independent pro-democracy radio and television broadcasting organizations that broadcast into Iran.
(e) (1) contacts should be expanded with opposition groups in Iran [that support democratic governance, equality of women, equal opportunity, freedom of the press, etc.]
The language is interesting: “contacts should be expanded,” suggesting the reality of already existing contacts.
The “soft power” strategy is well complemented by attempts to “genetically modify” youth movements and NGOs working for democratic causes, as Jack Bratich explains. Speaking of the State Department’s Jared Cohen, who figured in the recent Twitter protests, The New York Times stated in an article on 16 June 2009, “Washington Taps Into a Potent New Force in Diplomacy,” that Cohen “has been working with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other services to harness their reach for diplomatic initiatives in Iraq and elsewhere.” Bratich also speaks about the work of Jared Cohen and,
“his role as press contact for the Alliance of Youth Movements. Launched in late 2008 with a Summit in NYC, the AYM gathered together an ensemble of media corporations, Obama consultants, social network entrepreneurs, and youth organizations, under the auspices of the State Department. Representatives came from Media Old (MTV, NBC, CNN) and New (Google and especially Facebook). The AYM produced a Field Manual and a series of How-to videos (How to Create a Grassroots Movement Using Social-Networking Sites, How to Smart Mob, How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy). The goal was to have youth leaders from around the world learn, share and discuss how to build powerful grassroots movements.”
Bratich’s point about the metaphorical genetic modification of these movements, the way messages are seeded and diffused, is quite interesting for explaining the kinds of hybrids that can crop up, neither springing up entirely from below, nor simply the creation of exogenous sources. Instead, we are seeing a decentralized distribution of messages, a crowd sourcing of regime change, in what is perhaps the most sophisticated and novel form of intervention to date.
More from and about Jared Cohen is in this video from MSNBC:
Again, my contention is not that the CIA or any other branch of the U.S. government has created Iranian discontent and marshaled Iranian youths to risk their lives protesting during a brutal crackdown, but that it would be sheer folly, if one looks at the events with “national security” logic, for the U.S. and others to not want to influence events and not to have operatives in place. Brent Snowcroft recently summarized this same view in an interview with Al Jazeera:
President Obama, the master of calculated ambiguity in speech, perhaps put it best when he said, “It’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling – the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections”. To not be seen is not disavowing interference, it is merely another way of saying that it is necessary to work covertly, and then he narrows it further: it’s most important for the U.S. president to not be seen as meddling. Do we see him meddling?
[Thanks to Daniel McAdams, "Who Put the 'Green' in the Green Revolution?" LRC Blog, 19 June 2009; and, Rebel Reports, "Brent Snowcroft: U.S. has Spies on the Ground in Iran," 24 June 2009 -- both were important sources of leads to resources used for this article.]