Helping the revolution

How a McGill prof helped teach Iran’s opposition about non-violent protest

090914_iranPayam Akhavan was working in The Hague as a legal adviser to the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when students in his homeland of Iran took to the streets in numbers that had not been seen since the early days of the Islamic Revolution. The July 1999 demonstrations began as a peaceful protest against the closing of a reformist newspaper, but when the government responded by sending the Islamist Basij militia to raid a university dormitory and throw students off upper-floor balconies, it escalated into a confrontation between the guardians of Iran’s theocracy and those who wanted to reform or overthrow it.

Akhavan, whose family left Iran in 1975 and who is now a professor of international law at McGill University, had long believed there was a desire for democratic change in Iran. He and other exiles frequently discussed how this might come about and whether they could do anything about it. But there appeared to be little momentum coming from within Iran, until that July. “We awakened to the fact that what we always knew was an undercurrent of discontent in Iran had finally spilled over,” he says. “And from that point onward there was some consideration given to how can we begin to help these people.”

A year later, another uprising in another part of the world gave Akhavan hope and direction. In October 2000, a non-violent revolution forced the resignation of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who was subsequently turned over to the tribunal in The Hague. Within less than a year, the man who had brought so much death and destruction to the Balkans went from governing a nation to pacing a jail cell and facing charges of war crimes and genocide in a UN-backed court. Barely a shot had been fired.

“Milosevic was once untouchable,” says Akhavan, recalling Milosevic’s presence at peace conferences during and after the Bosnian War. “And for me, as someone who had seen him being treated as a head of state, to see him overthrown and then surrender to The Hague, as an Iranian, it was very inspiring. The two things that came to mind were non-violent resistance and prosecutions, accountability. Those were the two pillars.”

This led Akhavan, who by 2003 was a senior fellow at Yale’s law school and genocide studies program, to join with others with an interest in Iran to found the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center the following year. The institution is dedicated to documenting human rights abuses in Iran and to informing Iranians about international human rights standards, with the goal of building civil society and, eventually, holding those responsible for abuses in Iran to account. It has received funding from private and government sources, including the U.S. State Department, the UN, and Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs.

Among Akhavan’s colleagues who founded the documentation centre was Ramin Ahmadi, a professor in Yale’s faculty of medicine who left Iran in 1982 at the age of 17. “Some of my young friends in those days were executed and killed by the Revolutionary Guards,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s, referring to the branch of Iran’s military that is most dedicated to preserving the Islamic Revolution. “I never forgot that. I left friends behind. I never forgot that I had some of my best memories from my younger years in Iran. And I always felt that democracy and respect for human rights are the way to go.”

Ahmadi was a keen student of non-violent resistance, particularly the ideas of Gene Sharp, a political scientist and founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, which studies and promotes the use of non-violent action to advance democracy. For several years in the early 2000s, using his own money, Ahmadi had organized workshops on non-violent resistance for hundreds of Iranian democratic activists at locations outside Iran where Iranians could travel without raising suspicion.

“My vision was always that in Iran people are going to want to change this regime,” he says. “And I believed that the way to maximize your chances of reaching democracy and respect for human rights is if your revolution is non-violent. So my vision was that you train young people in non-violent strategy and action, and they go and teach others. It spreads, and you have a young generation that wants to change their lives, and they will go about doing it non-violently. And that helps us make a transition to democracy.”

Like Akhavan, Ahmadi had also been inspired by the overthrow of Milosevic, particularly by the crucial role played by a non-violent opposition youth group known as Otpor, or “Resistance.” He brought activists from Otpor to his Iranian workshops, along with veterans of other civil rights struggles. “It’s very helpful to bring people who have actually committed to non-violence and have been successful,” he says. “All of a sudden you have a bond. As young people, you see that your problem is not unique, that yours is the same as in other countries.”

By 2005, Ahmadi had agreed to co-operate with the Center on Non-Violent Conflict, another institution that studies and promotes non-violence as a means of social change. The centre had teaching material and curricula that Ahmadi thought were appropriate for his goals in Iran, and was willing to fund similar workshops. They decided to host one in Dubai, where Iranians can travel without visas and where hundreds of thousands of them live already—meaning that the activists from Iran would be difficult to detect.

This time, however, the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center held training sessions as well. Payam Akhavan helped organize the event and attended as an instructor.

The workshops took place in the spring of 2005. About 20 Iranians came, split into groups of four or five, kept separate from each other and lodged at different hotels. If one group’s cover was blown, the organizers didn’t want the other attendees to be implicated. “By nature, you cannot tell people what to do,” says Akhavan, when asked about what was taught at the workshops. “You can just put these ideas into their minds and let them decide how to adapt it in their own circumstances.” Nevertheless, strategies were part of the workshops. “Beyond making a lot of noise, you have to anticipate how the government is going to respond, how you’re going to evade those measures,” he says.

As an example, Akhavan noted the importance of solidarity among different opposition groups and of unifying slogans and symbols. He saw examples of this during the mass protests that swept Iran this summer after the June 12 presidential election, which most observers believe was rigged in favour of incumbent hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Demonstrators adopted green as the colour of their revolution, and even secularists chanted “God is great!” from their rooftops at night, echoing the popular slogan of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“These things were discussed,” says Akhavan, when asked if such tactics were born in Dubai. “But I would not say that that is where it was decided. I don’t want to suggest that were it not for this series of seminars, that would never have happened.”

Akhavan, like Ahmadi, is forthcoming but cautious when talking about the workshops in Dubai. On the one hand, he feels they made a difference, certainly in the minds of the attendees. “Those who were present were very clearly inspired,” he says. “To understand that what they did in 1999 contained the seeds of something much greater—that consciousness, I think, was very important. And for them to understand that this has succeeded in other countries, that Iran is just another authoritarian state, and people have dealt with worse situations, in South Africa, in Chile, in Argentina—that gives people moral strength and hope.”

On the other hand, the response of the Iranian government to this summer’s uprising has been to describe the protesters as stooges of foreign powers intent on carrying out a “velvet coup.” As more evidence emerges detailing the abuse inflicted on detained Iranian dissidents, Akhavan is loath to say anything that might be twisted to fit the official Iranian narrative of the uprising.

“It is ludicrous to say that the three million people who poured into the streets of Tehran, and the thousands who have been defiant in the face of murder, torture, and rape, are all pawns of some foreign conspiracy,” he says. “What the regime is doing is to demonize a genuine indigenous struggle for democracy as a foreign conspiracy, and to render unpatriotic those who are asking for human rights. It’s those at the forefront of the struggle in Iran who are making the real sacrifices, showing by their actions how desperate they are for change. All we’re doing from abroad is supporting them and giving them knowledge and skills and encouragement.”

Of the 20 or so Iranians who attended the 2005 workshops in Dubai, all returned safely to Iran, with the exception of one group, which consisted of the wife, daughter, nephew, and friend of prominent Iranian reformist and prisoners’ rights advocate Emadeddin Baghi, who has spent years in jail because of his activism over the past decade. Baghi was not able to go to Dubai because Iranian authorities held his passport.

Back in Iran, at least one member of this group chose not to hide their attendance at the workshops; for almost a year this brought no repercussions. But by 2006 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had replaced reformist Mohammad Khatami as president, which cast a chill over reformist groups in Iran. And in February of that year, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked the Senate for $75 million to promote democracy and human rights in Iran. Talk of regime change was back in the air. All four members of Baghi’s group who went to Dubai were arrested.

Around this time, the Washington Post interviewed Baghi about the conference. Predictably, with his wife and daughter in jail and facing interrogations, Baghi condemned the whole operation.

Ahmadi held at least one more workshop for Iranian dissidents but has now stopped. Most of his workshop material and curricula are online and translated into Farsi. The material has been downloaded, he says, tens of thousands of times from inside Iran. Akhavan, from his current post at McGill, remains active on the board of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and continues to advocate for Iranian democracy. The Iranian government has denounced him as a CIA agent. Both men still believe that a peaceful transition to democracy is possible in Iran.

The demonstrations that shook Iran this summer were suppressed with overwhelming force. In recent weeks, as reports have emerged detailing the brutality suffered by protesters in detention, leading clerics and other members of Iran’s establishment have voiced their outrage. When the acid-burned body of Saeedeh Pouraghayi was released to her family, 20 days after she was arrested for shouting “God is great!” and “Down with the dictator!” from her rooftop, defeated opposition candidate and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi attended her funeral. There are fault lines running through the country’s political elite that weren’t visible before the June 12 election.

Ahmadi sees two major factors in Iran that he says will affect the way Iranian politics develops in the years ahead. One is the increasing power of the Revolutionary Guards, who are pushing the Islamic Republic of Iran closer to a traditional military dictatorship than a theocracy. The second factor is the growing co-operation between reformists, who believe that democracy and respect for human rights can be developed within Iran’s existing political system, and revolutionaries who believe the system itself must be changed.

Previously, the former were tolerated while the latter were crushed. But this summer, even those who simply wanted the votes they cast in an election to be counted fairly risked detention, beatings, and rape. It has pushed reformists and revolutionaries together and increased the likelihood of more widespread protests against the regime in the future.