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Iran protesters: the Harvard professor behind their tactics

Iran singled out Harvard professor Gene Sharp as a key inspiration for protesters' 'velvet coup.' Sharp's manual on nonviolent protest shaped opposition movements in Czechoslovakia and inspired activists in Burma.

By Staff Writer / December 29, 2009

Gene Sharp, a retired Harvard researcher, is considered the godfather of nonviolent resistance, pictured in his office, December 17.

Mary Knox Merrill /Staff


Istanbul, Turkey

After massive protests shook Iran this past summer, Iran singled out an obscure American political scientist in his 80s as a key figure behind the unrest.

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Gene Sharp, a retired Harvard researcher, is considered the godfather of nonviolent resistance. Since the early 1970s, his work has served as the template for taking on authoritarian regimes from Burma to Belgrade. A list of his 198 methods for nonviolent action can be downloaded free of charge, along with his seminal work, “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” which has been translated by his Albert Einstein Institute into two dozen languages ranging from Azeri to Vietnamese.

Hailed as the manual by those who conducted people-power coups in Eastern Europe, its contents were no secret in Iran, where authorities have obsessed for years about their vulnerability to a “velvet revolution.” In fact, a few years ago they requested – and were sent – hard copies of Mr. Sharp’s works. Officials saw this summer’s unrest as the fruit of his strategies.

In a mass trial of some 100 key reformist figures this past August, Iranian prosecutors charged that postelection protests were “completely planned in advance and proceeded according to a timetable and the stages of a velvet coup [such] that more than 100 of the 198 events were executed in accordance with the instructions of Gene Sharp.”

Sharp does not take credit – nor accept blame – for the summer crisis that, in the words of Iran’s most powerful military commanders, brought the regime to the “edge of a downfall.” But Sharp’s ideas are clearly reflected in the continuing political unrest.

“We don’t take charge of movements,” says Sharp, who runs his nonprofit on a modest budget out of his Boston home. “We try to provide materials to enable the people on the scene, who know the scene better than we do, by far, to make those decisions and do those things.”

Protests by the reformists took a bloody turn this weekend, with at least 8 dead by Monday. Antigovernment demonstrators attacked police with stones for the first time and also burned a jeep, according to an eyewitness. The nephew of former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was killed. A spokesman for Mr. Mousavi alleged that Seyd Ali Mousavi's killing was a targeted assassination. He said he was shot in the heart.

Farsi downloads of booklet soar

In June, as hundreds of thousands took to Iran’s streets and faced a violent crackdown, downloads of “From Dictatorship to Democracy” in Farsi spiked to 3,487 from just 79 the month before on Sharp’s website. Other sites hosting Sharp’s work reported a similar boost in demand.

“The great irony is that people actually weren’t focused on the velvet revolution option before the elections,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It’s only after the elections, when Iranians have come to the realization that they can’t change their political fate with the ballot box, that they’ve looked to more dramatic options.”

Of Sharp's 198 strategies, some of the main ones used by Iranian protesters were:

  7. Slogans

 18. Symbolic colors (green)

 26. Paint as protest

 28. Symbolic sounds

 38. Marches

 52. Silence

 71. Consumer boycott
 (Nokia, Siemens)

135. Popular nonobedience

194. Disclosing identities of
 secret agents