Cover story Iason Athanasiadis explores America's quixotic and sometimes clumsy attempts to engineer non-violent regime change by promoting democracy in Iran.
Iason Athanasiadis explores America's quixotic and sometimes clumsy attempts to engineer non-violent regime change by promoting democracy in Iran.
Anahita was standing outside the McDonald's on Istanbul's bus-choked Taksim Square in the shimmering early morning sunlight, shaking her long tresses into the summer breeze. She had just arrived on a flight from Tehran, and a few hours later, she would board another aeroplane to her eventual destination: a clandestine conference for prominent dissident Iranian exiles in Prague. The wind in her hair was a novel feeling for Anahita; in Iran, the law dictates that women must wear Islamic head-coverings in all public places. A committed feminist in her early 40s, Anahita had resisted the social pressure to get married by her mid-20s and, bucking traditional mores, she lived alone in an apartment set back from a busy motorway in east Tehran and poured all her energies into the student-dominated movement clamouring for women's rights. In 2007, she endured a short stay in Section 209, the high-security ward inside Tehran's Evin Prison reserved for political prisoners; her crime was participating in a street demonstration broken up by the chador-clad, baton-wielding women of the Ministry of Interior's all-female police unit.
Anahita was released from prison without appearing in court, but an interrogator warned her that her case remained open. (Some names have been changed to protect Iranian sources.) Back on the streets of Tehran, her mobile phone produced strange sounds. Though she forfeited activism, her arrest raised her international profile. A discreet invitation was forwarded to her through a European contact in Tehran, making her the only activist from inside Iran to attend the Prague meeting. Anahita knew that if her presence was discovered by her government, she would likely be arrested and charged with espionage.
On the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration, officials in Tehran have launched an unprecedented crackdown on domestic dissent. Talk of striking Iran has retreated from the headlines, but the Iranian regime believes this is just an attempt to lull them into complacency. Iran's security services have certainly kept themselves busy: last week a reformist newspaper was shut down after publishing a piece blaming Hamas for the Gaza crisis. Throughout 2008, the intelligence ministry announced the discovery of a series of plots against the regime, and in November, three men were convicted to death for their alleged involvement in an explosion that rocked a mosque in Shiraz last April, which Iranian officials blamed on foreign intelligence services. In November, journalists were invited to view equipment confiscated in the break-up of a purported Mossad network operating inside Iran - a stark change from the past practice of announcing "evidence" of foul play without providing it.
The prominent Israeli intelligence correspondent Yossi Melman has confirmed the high-intensity intelligence war being waged against the Islamic Republic, noting audacious examples of sabotage such as the use of straw companies to sell Iran's nuclear programme defective equipment, tools fitted with monitoring devices and electronic Trojan Horses. In November Ali Ashtari, an Iranian businessman who supplied the military and security services with electronic equipment was executed after being accused of working for the Mossad. And for the first time Iran publicly stated what officials had told me in private since 2003: it had entered a "serious intelligence war" with its foes.
Sam Gardiner, a retired US Air Force colonel and a specialist on military strategy, thinks Iran is right to be worried. "The president has said many times that the war on terror is being carried out on fronts known to the American people - and on fronts unknown to the American people," he said. "There are increasing signs that one of those fronts is now Iran." Alarms began to sound inside Iran's intelligence agencies in February 2007, when Alireza Asghari, a retired Iranian deputy minister of defence with insider knowledge of Iran's nuclear programme, disappeared in Istanbul. News of the event was suppressed for two months. But Asghari's debriefings to Western intelligence agencies may have furnished crucial evidence for the 2008 US National Intelligence Estimate that asserted Iran had ceased its nuclear weapons programme.
On the night that news of Asghari's disappearance finally broke in March 2007, I was in Tehran, having dinner with a former high-ranking Iranian diplomat at a Lebanese restaurant. Picking at kibbe in the brightly-lit dining room, my host hinted that Asghari had defected and remarked that "the disillusionment within the regime is sometimes stronger than the disillusionment of the ordinary people." The defectors, he said, "are people who have travelled outside Iran, to Europe, and know a different level of life." The Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al Awsat reported that Asghari had taken refuge in the United States, while a report in the Washington Post placed him at a Nato facility in Germany. And then he disappeared entirely.
Western analysts hailed the event as an "intelligence coup", and Asghari's disappearance led mortified Iranian intelligence officials to accelerate the security clampdown and heighten surveillance of top current and former officials. When Anahita left Tehran for the Prague meeting in the summer of 2007, Iran's intelligence agencies were on alert after a number of ambushes, bombings and riots that they believed to be a loosely-co-ordinated campaign of disruption in the country's sensitive and ethnically-mixed border areas. In a report authored for the Century Foundation, Gardiner suggested such activities were indeed under way, writing that "the United States is now supporting at least four groups to do proxy operations" in Iran.
Anahita was aware of none of this as she sat at one of the first outdoor cafes to open that morning in Istanbul on the popular Istiklal pedestrian thoroughfare. With frustration mounting in Iran, Anahita had decided to accept the invitation to Prague. She knew the dangers: dozens of academics, civil society activists and NGO staffers who have attended conferences abroad have been detained by the government and accused of working with foreign intelligence agencies. Suspects are usually picked up at airports and accused of treason.
Anahita, who had already been to prison once, was running an especially serious risk: being caught at a clandestine American-organised meeting would bring even more severe punishment at home. Before she left, Anahita installed a Magic Partition software tool on her laptop, creating an invisible storage area to evade a search of her files by airport security. She also bought a minuscule flash drive for sensitive material - so that she could swallow it if arrested.
Washington publicly turned up the pressure on Iran in February 2006 when it announced it would spend $75 million on "democracy promotion" inside the country - an eight-fold increase that signalled the beginning of a newly intense low-level conflict. Tehran immediately condemned the initiative as proof that Washington had a regime-change agenda, while critics such as James Russell, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, remarked sceptically that there was "no shortage of potential Iranian Chalabis ready to set themselves up in a nice apartment in London's West End with some copiers and fax machines and the requisite bank accounts to reap the windfall".
"The programme is unique as compared to other US democracy programs, which are carried out with the support of governments and are focused on institution-building and technical assistance," said Dokhi Fassihian, a senior policy associate at the Democracy Coalition Project, a Washington-based NGO. "The Iran programme is really a political stick, and to use it as a stick you have to widely publicise it. So when it was released, the Bush administration made sure it got a lot of press coverage."
A democracy transition consultant in the US told me that "Congress made so much money available that it was being given away freely". But Les Campbell, who directs the Middle East programme at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) told me that he refused to apply for state department funds. "I'm sick of explaining to people that we're not the CIA," he said. The State Department's $75m, he added, "had become so controversial, and people were so aware of the source of the funding, that it would have been impossible to do anything with Iranian partners".
Though many democracy-promotion advocates look for inspiration to the nonviolent revolutions that took place across Eastern Europe in the last decade - in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan - Campbell suggests the situation in Iran could not be more different. He walked the mutinous streets of Belgrade in 2000 as demonstrators forced Milosevic from office and, he says, you "really felt that something was at stake; that the country was on the verge of momentous change." But in Iran - a vast country with an ethnically heterogeneous population - such a spontaneous uprising seems unlikely.
Iran began to open slightly as the reformist president Mohammad Khatami took office in 1997, and satellite dishes and internet access proliferated. An opening was made to the West and social freedoms expanded at home. But the changes did not translate into greater political rights for Iranians, and in 1999, thousands of Iranian students took to the streets demanding a liberalisation of the Islamic Republic's strict laws. They called on Khatami to support them publicly. With the Revolutionary Guard threatening to depose him in a coup, Khatami asked the students to back down, and the Tehran Spring came to an abrupt end.
It was a year later that student revolutionaries in Belgrade deposed Milosevic, the first of the latter-day velvet revolutions that would recur across the post-Soviet world. Taking their cue from the 1989 Czech uprising led by Vaclav Havel, these upheavals followed remarkably similar scripts, with non-violent tactics and media-friendly branding. As the "Colour Revolutions" spread across Central Asia and even into the Levant, concern solidified in Tehran that Iran would be next in line. It would not have been the first popular uprising to sweep the country: when millions of Khomeinist demonstrators faced off against troops loyal to the Shah in the autumn of 1978, they too employed non-violent stratagems to delegitimise the regime. "Protesters placing leaves, small branches or flowers in the muzzles of soldiers' guns were extremely important in undermining the morale and allegiance of these troops for the Shah," Gene Sharp told me when we met as the crowded offices of his Albert Einstein Institution in Boston. Sharp, who has been called "the Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare," is the author of From Dictatorship to Democracy, a manual for democratic uprisings that has been translated into dozens of languages and downloaded thousands of times from the Institute's website. He has been accused for decades of working in the employ of the CIA to promote American interests around the world, and recently his likeness was featured in an Iranian television programme, alongside John McCain and George Soros, plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Sharp is no flower-power hippy advocating non-violence for its own sake; he judges that, in a situation where mostly unarmed protesters face off against a repressive regime's troops, the weaker party must resort to guile to tip the balance of power in its favour. "It's not a Gandhian phenomenon, Christian or Hindu," the septuagenarian, Oxford-educated Sharp remarked. "It is based not on your capacity to love your enemy but to be stubborn and cussed. People can have their own hatred for somebody but choose not to use violence. It makes it very awkward for the person trying to control the situation."
The meeting Anahita attended in Prague was one of a series of semi-confidential off-the-record conferences rippling across European capitals. It was organised by the Berlin office of the Aspen Institute, a private think-tank funded by the Carnegie Endowment and the Ford Foundation that was active in Shah-era Iran. The Prague conference was advertised on Aspen's website as "The West Meets the Middle East" without accompanying text and only the addendum, "By Invitation Only". The Aspen Institute, according to its website, has "new projects focusing on the Middle East" aiming at "developing closer contacts in the region" and "increased awareness of social and political developments in the Middle East". Olaf Bohnke, the head of the Aspen Institute's Iran programme in Berlin and the organiser of the Prague conference, confirmed that meetings related to civil society and democracy promotion are held privately in order to "create a platform for people interested in the topic and connect people from Iran with people from the US and Europe". "Nothing controversial or suspicious has been discussed at Aspen, but with the current security situation it's a sensitive issue for people to travel to Europe and participate," he added. Bohnke did not reply to an emailed question about the institute's funding and whether it has ever received a grant from the State Department's Iran initiative. Similar conferences bringing together diplomats, intelligence officials, academics and Middle East experts in off-the-record settings have been held in a succession of five-star hotels in Athens by the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These meetings were the brainchild of the US Department of Defence, in collaboration with Columbia and UCLA. Several Iranian academics participated until 2006, when they were warned off by the government, which thought the events were opportunities for Western spy agencies to recruit assets. At one of these meetings, the former head of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Rezaie, floated a plan for negotiations with the US in front of his Israeli counterparts, an action that the Islamic Republic would never countenance in a public setting. At another meeting, an Iranian official posed alongside a former Israeli government official in commemorative snapshots. Six months after the Prague conference, the Aspen Institute brought together 15 Iranians - all exiles save for one journalist from Tehran - at a meeting in Berlin to discuss the Iranian blogosphere. A North America-based Iranian engineer who runs a blog sharply critical of the Islamic Republic said that the topics under discussion were freedom of expression and the pressures that Iranians are subjected to in a country with one of the strictest internet censorship regimes. Although he could not reveal his identity because participants pledged not to discuss the meeting in public, the blogger did say that he "didn't feel they were looking to identify people to employ in pulling off a Velvet Revolution in Iran".
Since 2003, the Bush Administration - bogged down in two wars, one of which has substantially bolstered Iran's influence in the region - has quickly exhausted its limited options for diplomatic, political or military leverage against Iran. The idea of applying non-violent principles to depose the Iranian regime has therefore attracted increasing support; at the same time the non-violent transition industry is experiencing unprecedented growth. Since Havel's bloodless coup in 1989, Washington-based groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House have given financial and practical support to grassroots activist movements waging similar campaigns from Central Asia to Lebanon, with the tacit or explicit backing of the US government. Perhaps the pre-eminent exponent of "people-power" in support of US policy goals today is Peter Ackerman, a former student of Sharp's. Ackerman funded Sharp's work for two decades but then founded his own shop, the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict, in 2002. "When people refuse to obey and then make themselves ungovernable," he argued in a keynote speech at a State Department forum in 2004, regimes can be toppled. He encouraged activists to "undermine an authoritarian's pillars of support and control, including and especially the loyalty of the military and police". The ICNC has become a "major source of private funding" for non-violent regime change, according to one of Ackerman's former colleagues. "If you need serious funding for a project," he added, "you go to Ackerman." In April 2005, the ICNC, along with the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven, Connecticut, invited Iranian activists to Dubai for what was advertised as a workshop on human rights. "It was a disaster," said the Washington democracy consultant, who declined an offer to help organise the event. "Several people got in serious trouble as a result of attending." Nilofar, an Iranian woman in her 30s, was one of the Dubai workshop's attendees. It was not her first visit to Dubai - whose malls and nightclubs make it a popular stomping-ground for secular Iranians looking for escape - but it was certainly her strangest. She was picked up at the airport, whisked directly to a Holiday Inn, and told to rest and prepare for the workshop. Early the next morning she was taken by taxi to another hotel, where she was directed to an unmarked hall where participants were assigned by organisers to small four-person groups. The gathering, she said, was cloaked in secrecy. She recalled that signs for the conference posted in the hotel lobby misidentified the gathering to mislead outsiders; participants had also been split up in several different hotels to minimise intermingling. Nilofar soon realised that everyone was using assumed names. According to Nilofar, among the organisers were US-based Iranian exiles and three Serbs who said they were veterans of Otpor, the youth movement that led the protests against Milosevic. In class, the Serbian instructors organised role-playing games in which the participants were expected to assume the personas of generic characters such as a peasant Iranian woman or a Shiite clergyman. Throughout these exercises in empathy and psychological identification, stress was laid on the importance of ridiculing the political elite as an effective tool of delegitimising them. "They taught us the methods they used in Serbia to bring down Milosevic," Nilofar said. "They taught us some of them so we could choose the best one to bring down the regime but they didn't mention directly bringing down the regime - they just taught us what they had done in their own country." The participants were also taught how to concoct revolutionary slogans, how to measure the appeal of a popular movement and how to encrypt information and send it out of the country without being observed. "It was all very schoolboyish," said Nilofar. "They were teaching us how to make fun of authority figures, to make them a cause of laughter for the public." One evening, Nilofar said, she was taken to dinner by one of the American organisers, who asked why she stayed in Iran and offered to "help get you out of there" and into a postgraduate programme at an American university. An LA-based dissident encouraged her to contact opposition networks in Iran on her return and complimented her on her "flair for organisation." "The organisers didn't know anything or even care, nor were they giving proper consideration to people's safety and their lives by holding this event," said the Washington democracy consultant - who added that the organisers later revealed the dates of the workshop to the press, endangering activists whose movements were likely already under surveillance. But the Iranian government was aware of the workshops even before several attendees were arrested on their return - Tehran runs several intelligence networks in Dubai. "I guess the whole programme developed some serious leaks," said Cyrus Safdari, a US-based Iranian political analyst, "since I heard about it repeatedly from various guests at various Iranian social functions who wanted to show off how well-connected to the CIA they had become". Jack DuVall, the founding director of the ICNC, said that he was assured that "precautions were taken" and "was never advised that there was suspicion that 'Iranian intelligence had penetrated' the workshop". He claims no subsequent events with Iranians have been held by the ICNC. But parallel workshops conducted by US-based organisations have since been moved to locations in Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Spain and southern Turkey, according to democracy consultants in Istanbul and Washington. According to one organiser, "the last two rounds have been uneventful - no arrests or problems for the participants this year." The press spokesman for Iran's Ministry of Intelligence does not answer questions from foreign journalists but an Iranian contact with good ties to his country's intelligence community spoke on my behalf about the Dubai workshop to intelligence officials in Tehran. One official told him that "some of the people who were invited to attend the meeting were never allowed to leave the country while some who actually did turn up were later questioned and incarcerated - but some of the poor fellows had really not known what they were getting into". Iranian intelligence believes that the workshops were co-ordinated through the Office of Iranian Affairs in Dubai, a US diplomatic outpost established in the UAE to monitor developments in Iran. The source in Iran added that Tehran believes similar conferences were held in India and Azerbaijan, "with journalists, activists and others invited to get training about human rights and democracy." "As I gather, the idea was to fund and train activists to be agents provocateurs along the lines of the Otpor movement in Serbia," said Safdari, the US-based analyst. "Their job was to utilise various techniques such as anti-government graffiti, to embolden the student movement and provoke a general government crackdown, which could then be used as a pretext to 'spark' a mass uprising in Iran that appeared to be spontaneous and indigenous." Brady Kiesling, a former US diplomat who resigned in March 2003 in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, argues that the Office of Iranian Affairs could be an attempt by Washington to remedy the policy disconnect currently in effect, whereby the most senior US diplomat dealing exclusively with Iran is a midlevel desk officer with no more than six years of experience and no clout with senior policymakers. "To maintain the illusion of having a policy that might some day work, Washington does covert ops, even if they're only covert from the US taxpayer and not the intended target," Kiesling said. "I have no idea whether the CIA is really organising conferences like the one with Nilofar, or whether it is greedy, ambitious NGOs working with rabid exile groups, hoping they can grab a share of new US funding when it emerges." Tom Parker, the director of the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, a co-sponsor of the workshops and recipient of State Department funding, admits that "IHRDC was just starting out in 2005 and ? made a mistake in going to Dubai". He maintains that "Iranian expatriate politics is a messy business, best avoided. IHRDC is now a much more mature organisation with a much better defined mission, which does not include mounting training courses of any sort."
Back in Tehran, fear was coursing through Nilofar's body as she waited in line to pass through passport control at the gleaming Imam Khomeini International Airport. "I was convinced that etelaat (Iranian intelligence) would be picking me up as soon as they tapped my passport number into the computer," she said. "Later, I found out that some of the other people who had attended the course had been arrested." Having collected her bags, Nilofar walked out into the Tehran sunshine unchallenged. She had already taken precautions by leaving all her notes from the course in Dubai. Three years later, she remains worried about being called in for questioning one day and confesses the experience left her with a mixed aftertaste. She remembers the trainees that she encountered in Dubai as "power-hungry," mahrum - a Farsi word meaning deprived - and beset by temper tantrums. "Of the political activists now in the country, many come from lower-class families who have been deprived of everything and now they've decided to overthrow the government," Nilofar said. "But what they don't understand is that they will not be tomorrow's leaders, they'll be pushed aside. The trainees "kept on drinking and drinking. And they made endless phone-calls, thinking that the Americans would pay for them. But in the end they didn't." A few days after my first meeting with Anahita, the Iranian democracy activist, I returned to the airport to meet her Turkish Airlines fight from Prague. There was no time to leave the airport before Anahita's connecting flight to Tehran, so we sat in the airport bar and ordered beers. The tall glasses reminded Anahita of the dazzling variety of frothy ales she had sampled in Prague. Anahita was subdued and nervous. Her trip had not been a revelation, and she felt she had been watched. "The number of Iranians who coincidentally crossed my path while I was in Prague was ridiculous, unreal," she exhaled. The meeting had been small, just ten people, among them Iranian exiles from North America, a Farsi-speaking Frenchman who had lived in Tehran and a Belgian MP. In the corridors of the Prague Radisson, she was asked what the chances were that Iranians would resist a US attack. Would they rise up against the regime? As she recounted her experiences, I noticed Anahita looking at the table diagonally behind us. A single man sat, nursing a small draft beer and smoking Marlboro Lights. Cleanly shaven, he wore a cheap business shirt and leather shoes. On the pretext of taking a call on her mobile, Anahita stood up and walked behind him. Busy texting on his mobile, he did not notice. When he felt her looking over his shoulder, he hastily flipped the receiver facedown on the table. "I saw him texting in Farsi," Anahita whispered to me when she sat down again. We moved seats to the back of the bar, as a precaution. The man got up shortly after and left. Nerves jangling, I walked Anahita to passport control and bade her farewell. Before going, she turned to me. "I feel as if I was raped at that conference," she said. "And all I told them about what might happen in Iran was that Iranians are impossible to predict. No one can say how they will react. But what I realised there is that the West cares so little for us. It's as if these interlopers had invaded one of the most private relationships that I have - that with my own country." Anahita did not remain for long in Iran; soon after her return she joined the estimated 150,000 mostly young Iranians who emigrate each year. For her, the struggle to reform the Islamic Republic of Iran was over.
Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based writer and photographer.