A Winning Strategy
by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran
04 Mar 2010 23:41
[ opinion ] In the nine remarkable months since the fraudulent June 12 election, more and more people in Iran have come to appreciate the preeminent role civil disobedience plays, and must play, in their struggle. In the process, millions are turning into seasoned activists simply by coming face to face with the dictatorship in all its malevolence. For every person who has been thrown in jail and tortured, dozens more have become politicized. This has largely been a spontaneous process -- and while spontaneity has on occasion helped foil the government's tactics of suppression, it also has its drawbacks. Among these, it increases the odds of being outmaneuvered by a regime that is very powerful and cunning when it is able to set the rules of the game, as happened on February 11. If the Green Movement is to succeed in its quest for democracy and human rights in Iran, it is thus crucial to understand the techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience and how they may be applied most effectively in the current circumstances.
Some in Iran's sprawling Green Movement have adopted the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience on moral/philosophical grounds, while others have done so out of purely practical considerations. In the interest of maintaining unity, the movement is well-advised to adopt the most common factor as the point of reference, namely the utility and efficacy of peaceful civil disobedience as the only viable political tactic in today's Iran. (This is not meant to suggest that philosophical discussion of the merits and demerits of civil disobedience are useless, simply that they are not today's burning question.)
The first point that must be understood is that civil disobedience is not tantamount to pacifism. Under certain circumstances, someone committed to civil disobedience can engage in acts of self-defense against aggressors. But this is the exception rather than the rule, and such responses must never be dictated by a predilection for violence or a hunger for vengeance, as practiced by the other side.
Next on the agenda is the issue of general goals. In an insurrectionary model, the opposition prepares for the day that, through the careful planning of a coup or revolution, its forces will "rise up," depose the enemy's leadership, and then proceed to purge the
polity of the adversary's cadres and supporters on a massive scale. This is in contradistinction to a struggle based in civil disobedience where no such dramatic single event is planned for and where much of the regime and its base receive clemency after victory (as happened, for example, in South Africa). So the question is, What is the ultimate goal?
The goal is to erode the pillars of support for the regime until loyalties shift, practical power begins to drain away, and the regime starts crumbling from within. Civil disobedience is thus not primarily aimed at demonstrating the moral superiority of the opposition movement -- though that is admittedly one objective -- but rather to disrupt the "normal" flow of commerce, politics, and everyday life. Clearly, a violent struggle against a much stronger foe has little chance of disrupting "normal" conditions except for fleeting moments, since violence gives the state license to stamp out its opponents with the full range of instruments at its disposal. This is why the Mojahedin's infantile tactics led to the further consolidation of the regime and why, in contrast, the country's rulers have failed
to roll back the Green Movement and been constrained from arresting Mousavi and Karoubi and doing what they do best -- engaging in revenge killings and mass executions. Indeed, the regime openly admits that it is facing the worst crisis in its 31 years of existence. As is clear by now, the mighty Islamic Republic of Iran is most terrified of the specter not of an insurrection, but of a peaceful "revolution."
In addition, talk of violent insurrection and punitive measures for regime henchmen and supporters robs the movement of its ability to co-opt and effectively neutralize them. Those who back the existing power structure will hardly abandon their position if any incentive to do so is eliminated. This is particularly true in a country like Iran where the heady mix of politics and religion has spawned vast reservoirs of support for the regime. Who could overlook the fact that more than 40,000 people have nominally signed up for "suicide missions"? Even conservatively estimating true believers at 5 percent, we are still left with nearly 2,000 volunteers. Let's not forget that the mighty U.S. military was almost brought to its knees in Iraq during 2005-6 through the suicide bombing missions of a cadre of fewer than 900 militants. Besides, the Green Movement cannot afford to cede the religious "center" to the hardliners. This includes the vast majority of clerics, plus millions of the faithful who have been led to believe that the current Islamic Republic is the incarnation of the Holy Writ on Earth and their best hope for the future.
It may appear that stating the movement's position against violence just once or twice would be sufficient. It is not. We must constantly foreground this position and make it a central plank of the platform. This is necessary both for the reasons outlined above, as well to prepare for those moments when violence, whether committed by the regime's forces or others, does erupt. We will be in position then to rightly claim that we have publicly and repeatedly disavowed the use of violence.
Is engagement in peaceful struggle alone sufficient for victory? The answer is, emphatically, no. We also need, concurrently, to put into practice a set of additional strategic principles:
1. Maximum unity: Contrary to what many people think, the strength of the Green Movement has been in its plurality and the astonishingly wide spectrum of people engaged in it. We do have our differences, of course. But anything that creates unproductive tension inside our ranks must be avoided at all costs. It will hardly matter what any differences are today, if there is no movement to speak of tomorrow. As we all know, the hardliners are busy hatching plans for squashing the movement as we speak. They are intent on reestablishing their unchallenged rule one more time after killing and imprisoning thousands.
I have spoken of "unproductive" tension. If a difference of opinion on ideology or tactics leads to division and splintering, its airing is by definition unproductive. If it does not, it may be all right to debate the matter, so long as this is done in a spirit of amicability and
solidarity. If we are serious about our demands for a free election, we must maintain a collaborative attitude. We can get at each other's throats in the next parliament that follows a free election. For now, though, differences should not be allowed to divide us. Any force that wants to join the movement, no matter how hesitant, provisional, and transient, must be welcomed with open arms. A caveat is in order here: The movement must be careful not to be associated with those who have blood on their hands or are deeply unpopular, such as the Mojahedin. They should be kept at arms' length, while making sure that they are not turned into implacable foes.
2. Co-optation: One of the most important goals must always be to co-opt elements of the regime's forces to the movement's side. We will NOT win unless this happens. The strategy of co-optation requires maximum attentiveness to the nature of our message and the language we employ. Any gestures that reduce the ability of those not currently part of the movement to shift their loyalties must be avoided. For example, "death to the Islamic Republic" chants, openly atheistic acts, and threats of violence are all deeply counterproductive.
3. Neutralization: Clearly, not all, and perhaps not even most, of the regime's supporters can be won over. But that doesn't mean they should all be counted as perennial enemies. We must convince some of them that this regime has no future, that they are much better off by disassociating themselves from it, and that they may continue to work and live as normal citizens as long as they do not try to dominate the rest of society again.
4. Persistence: Civil disobedience is a drawn-out process. The movement should prepare for the long haul and not expect the regime's sudden, precipitous collapse. Of course, if such an event did occur, we would all be very happy, but we cannot build our strategy on such a model. To do so would be to court disaster. We should prepare for a drawn-out fight. Whichever side -- the Green Movement or the regime -- designs a strategy better adapted to a prolonged struggle will win in the end. The wave of demoralization that followed the events of February 11 would not have occurred had there been a more sober assessment of the situation and a clearer understanding of the nature of the struggle.
5. Adaptability: Mistakes are inevitable. This is a constantly evolving situation. The movement needs to learn to adapt quickly to ongoing shifts. The regime is now doing exactly that and so should the Greens. It is all right to make mistakes -- they are inevitable in a struggle such as this. What is unpardonable is to continue making the same mistake,
like employing the Trojan horse tactic, over and over again.
Hamid Farokhnia is a pen name for a journalist and columnist working in Iran.
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