The nonviolent script for Iran

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Renewed student-led protests in Tehran should expedite the debate in Washington about Iran. Two questions are being asked: Can protests produce regime change, and what kind of external support would help?

The history of civilian-based movements, like the one now gestating in Iran, shows that agitation in the streets is not enough to topple a government. If US assistance merely adds fuel to the existing fire, and internal opposition is not based on weakening the real sources of the regime's power, neither will work.

The "people power" revolution in the Philippines, the coalition that ousted Pinochet in Chile, South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, and civilian movements that felled communist regimes in Poland and Eastern Europe all had common strategic features. They were deliberately nonviolent, proudly indigenous, unified on the basis of practical goals, and dispersed across the map and class lines of the country - and they co-opted the military. [Editor's note: Due to an editing error, the original version of this opinion piece inaccurately referred to the "people power" revolution in the Philippines as the "Filipinos' power revolution."]

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Successful civilian-based struggle makes a country ungovernable through strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other nonviolent tactics - in addition to mass protests - crumbling a government's pillars of support. This is possible in Iran. Three times in the past four years, the regime's outrageous actions have provoked unrest. A majority of the parliament has threatened to walk out. A former Iranian chief justice says that many Revolutionary Guards favor change, and some have even protected students against attacks by pro-regime vigilantes.

Events in Iran are reminiscent of Serbia just before a student-sparked movement removed Slobodan Milosevic. His regime had alienated not only students but most of the middle class, which the dismal economy had shattered. The political class was also split, with many tired of the dictator. Seeing their opportunity, the opposition moved to divide the regime from its sources of power.

First, they subordinated lesser objectives to the paramount goal of ousting Mr. Milosevic. In Iran, the antiregime movement should demand specific reforms, such as ending the clerics' veto on parliamentary laws and appointments, which would neutralize the mullahs' power.

Second, the Serbs ignored the temptation of going for broke with premature demonstrations in the capital and instead organized in neighborhoods and towns around the country, giving ordinary people low-risk ways to join in. Iranians should do the same.

Third, the Serbian police and military were persuaded that they weren't seen as the enemy - that their support was welcome. To do that, the opposition had to maintain strict nonviolent discipline.

Nothing jeopardizes a movement more than mixing violent with nonviolent tactics. Street-fighting will not help Iranian protesters enlarge their ranks. Attacking the military will not persuade them to defect - they will shoot back, shifting the contest to terms favoring the regime.

When a million Serbs marched on Belgrade in October 2000, Milosevic ordered crowds dispersed, with bullets if necessary. But no shots were fired because soldiers saw that he could no longer control the people. In days he was out.

President Bush has rightly endorsed the desire for real democracy espoused by most Iranians. Other world leaders should follow his example. But the Bush administration should resist proposals to foment a general upheaval that could turn violent, because that would only justify more repression.

While outside factors have never been decisive in making a regime implode, well-focused aid for a nonviolent campaign reinforces a sound, homegrown strategy.

Serbian dissidents were given working capital - money for supplies, communications, and, most important, training in strategic nonviolent struggle. Iranians have the resources but not the know-how - which should not come from the CIA or Defense Department, but rather from pro-democracy programs throughout the West.

Cheerleading from Washington is not a policy. It makes Iranian protesters appear to be doing America's bidding, and covert support for violent action would undercut their legitimacy. What's needed is a more strategic resistance by the Iranian opposition, unified behind clear political goals, backed by broader civilian participation, using tactics that divide the clerics and their military defenders. The Iranian people have the drive, the intelligence, and the capability to make such a strategy work - and that is what the world's democracies should assist.

Peter Ackerman is executive producer of the Peabody award-winning documentary, 'Bringing Down a Dictator' and chairman of the board of overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Jack DuVall is coauthor of 'A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict' and director of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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