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It's People Power, not "Democratic Diddling" in Iran

"I suppose that human beings looking at it would say that arms are the most dangerous things that a dictator, a tyrant needs to fear. But in fact, no - it is when people decide they want to be free. Once they have made up their minds to that, there is nothing that will stop them." -- Desmond Tutu

Over the past several days, a very worrisome trend has emerged in the commentary about the uprising in Iran. Several observers- understandably wary of a possible US role in any unexpected activities abroad- have been making the case that the Iranian election uprising is not homegrown, but rather the result of US intervention in the form of a "soft coup." Not to put too fine a point on it, but that insinuation is patently insulting to the millions of people who are, at this moment, risking their lives in what could become the biggest game-changer in Iran in decades.

The regime itself recognizes this, and each time it escalates the repression, it betrays its loss of legitimacy and galvanizes the pro-democracy activists just that much more. Ivan Marovic, a veteran from the Otpor movement which helped to bring down Milosevic in Serbia in 2000 compares this dynamic to Newton's 3rd law: "Every time they [the oppressor] increase the level of repression, the resistance goes up as well."

But none of this would be possible if the Iranian regime had not already lost its legitimacy from the inside- something that nearly a decade of neoconservative "democracy promotion" was unable to accomplish. In fact, it is safe to say that the displays of people power we've been witnessing on the streets of Iran over the last week are despite, not because of, American propaganda.

Although every mass nonviolent struggle is unique in its own way, there are a few requirements for success, and it appears that the Iranian pro-democracy movements have met each of these.

The first is indigenousness. No mass nonviolent struggle can succeed unless it comes from the people. There is a very simple reason: the level of risk and commitment required to carry out a struggle of this magnitude can only be accessed when a person feels ownership over the outcome; when they understand that it is up to them to withdraw their complicity in oppression, and that their actions will inspire others to do so as well. Think for a moment - if you can imagine- about what could get you to leave your home under conditions like the ones we now see in Tehran, go to the streets, and stay there, despite a very real risk of violence. Would you do it for a few dollars, a cell phone, or at the behest of an imperial power? There is absolutely no reason for any Iranian who genuinely does not feel a stake in this struggle to be on those streets.

The second is nonviolent discipline. Despite the regime's pathetic claims to the contrary, the actions on the part of the pro-democracy movement in Iran have thus far been nonviolent. This is critical for a couple of reasons: one, the use of violence by a movement undermines its legitimacy as a genuine source of alternative power, and two, violence on the part of the movement creates the pretext for the regime to respond violently itself. As it stands, the use of violent repression by the regime against scores of nonviolent protesters continues to whittle away at the last shreds of the regime's legitimacy, especially as the world watches via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The regime seems to understand-- as pointed out by Desmond Tutu in the quote above-- that they have more to fear from strict adherence to nonviolent tactics by the movement than any use of weapons.

The third requirement for nonviolent success is strategy. Although most media have been covering the events in Iran as spontaneous, the reality is that the movements there have been preparing for this opportunity for several years. The creativity of actions, continuous implementation of tactics, and skillful use of digital media in communicating to people both inside and outside of the country all indicate that the uprising in Iran is not ad hoc. And despite what advocates of "soft coup" conspiracy theories might argue, the indigenousness requirement extends to strategizing. It is Iranians alone who understand their political and cultural setting well enough to create an effective movement with messages that fit into the pre-existing civil society.

Finally, in order for a movement to sustain the momentum we've seen over the past week, there must be a genuine will to resist. What is missing from media coverage, and frankly, from Western attitudes, about the events in Iran, is a recognition of the political energy and dynamism that characterizes the movement. Is the cynicism the result of years of the neoconservative agenda of democracy promotion- a concept that has very little to do with actual democracy? Or is it a general uneasiness with anything that does not fit neatly into our preconceived notions of what people power is supposed to look like?

While no one else but the Iranian people can bring this struggle to fruition, we observers- especially in the West- should think carefully about the degree to which we are willing to undermine what may turn out to be the most significant show of grassroots people power in decades.