December 14, 2009

Lessons in revolution, via YouTube: Times Online

From The Sunday Times
December 13, 2009
Lessons in revolution, via YouTube

EVERY evening before dinner, Mohsen Sazegara disappears into the basement of his cosy suburban house in Virginia and makes a 10-minute home movie to post on YouTube.

Far from showcasing the talents of his sons or pets, Sazegara’s videos are of protest tactics aimed at bringing down a regime. His house is the epicentre of what he hopes will be the world’s first technological revolution and his videos are watched more than 6,000 miles away in Iran.

Six months after the disputed presidential election in Iran, the opposition has refused to give up despite a crackdown that has seen arrests, beatings, torture and show trials. Co-ordination of the so-called green revolution has increasingly moved overseas, where exiles are using the new media to spread the message.

Last week, when tens of thousands of students took to the streets of Iran in some of the biggest demonstrations since the elections, Sazegara had been sending instructions via Facebook, YouTube and email.

He stands in front of a green baize screen decorated with a V for victory and the movement’s slogan, “Green means resistance until spring comes”. After a brief assessment of the day’s events, he offers Iranians new ideas for fighting the regime.

They have good reason to listen. Thirty years ago, as a young revolutionary, he helped to topple the Shah, putting today’s Islamic regime in power and working as a speechwriter for its founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Sazegara was one of the founders of the Revolutionary Guard. Now he is teaching protesters how to tackle the force.

“In one part of my life I was involved in creating something; now, after 30 years, I’m trying to destroy it,” he said.

One of the highest ranking members of the regime to defect to the West, Sazegara held a number of key posts, including head of state radio, deputy prime minister and director of industrial development and renovation.

He helped to mould the Revolutionary Guard into an elite security force and to write its charter. “The idea was to create a people’s army to guard against coups and defend the country,” he said.

He was horrified to see it turn on its own people and extend its power over politics, media and security. “I had pictured a revolution whose face was full of kindness for the people and instead it became a brutal regime of tortures, executions, massacres,” he said.

In 1988 he left government and became a prominent critic, publishing three newspapers. “I realised we were wrong in the revolution, thinking creating an Islamic republic could solve all our problems,” he said. “Going back to the time of the prophet, cutting off hands of thieves, putting women in hijab doesn’t work — we have tested this in Iran and it has failed.”

Sazegara’s newspapers were shut down and he was jailed three times. The last time, in 2003, he was released after a 79- day hunger strike that saw his weight halve to 90lb. He fled overseas for eye and heart surgery, first to London, then the United States, where he was a visiting fellow at Yale and Harvard. This year he moved to Washington to set up a think tank and work for regime change.

Defeating the Revolutionary Guard is the key to success, he says. Describing the 130,000- strong force as “a corrupt and dangerous mafia”, he argues that “this movement will win when the Revolutionary Guard is defeated”.

The guard led the crackdown after elections in June in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline president, was controversially re-elected and supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, the opposition candidates, took to the streets.

“They thought if they kill 200 people, arrest 200 activists, everything will be stopped and Iranians won’t fight any more,” he said. “They did what they wanted. They killed, raped and they arrested more than 4,000. We believe 178 lost their lives.”

One of those was Neda Soltan, whose death was captured on a mobile phone camera and sent round the world, becoming a symbol of the repression. It was after her death that Sazegara began sending out daily videos from his basement to advise the movement.

“What I offer is non-violent tactics,” he said. “When they banned street protests, we told people to go to the roofs and shout ‘Allahu akbar’ [God is the greatest] or to drive along the streets at night, honking their horns. When they ban noise, we tell people to march in silent columns.”

He and others scour texts for methods used in revolutions in eastern Europe and Latin America and most recently Ukraine.

“When they stopped us writing slogans on the walls we started writing them on bank notes,” he said. He estimates 80% of the currency is stamped with “Death to the dictator” or slogans in support of Mousavi.

To spread the movement to provinces and small towns, they created a decentralised social network with people working in groups of between three and seven to pass on his daily missives: “That way, if they arrest some, there are thousands of new activists.”

He tells people to boycott goods manufactured by factories belonging to the Revolutionary Guard and to hoard small change to make daily transactions impossible. They arrange to plug in kettles, irons and hairdryers simultaneously to try to crash the power grid. He also suggests so-called “white strikes” where workers go to factories but do nothing. “The objective is to paralyse the government,” he said.

Some tactics are having an impact. When people turned up at football matches wearing green, state television resorted to broadcasting in black and white.

One of his main targets is the basiji, volunteer paramilitaries deployed by the Revolutionary Guard to break up protests: “Our activists take their photographs and identify them, then go to their homes and attach pictures of the martyrs on their wall and go to the schools of their children. These pressures are very effective — in last week’s protests we saw there were few basiji present.”

He has been encouraging activists to reach out to troops in the regular army after signs that they are not happy. “Army join the nation” read a number of placards last week.

Sometimes Sazegara shows films or PowerPoint presentations to demonstrate a point: “I showed a supporter being beaten after he had been left by other activists and told them if his friends had gone back and surrounded him, it would have been impossible for the basiji.”

Shahab, his 25-year-old son, downloads the daily messages onto YouTube and Facebook and to key email addresses. They estimate they reach an audience of half a million.

To impede this, the regime has slowed internet speeds so accessing an email account can take half an hour. It blocks access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and has set up monitoring centres in the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guard to track political dissent.

According to Sazegara, Iranians abroad are adopting a similar role to the one they played in toppling the Shah in 1979 by providing money and skills. “Then we smuggled in cassettes of the ayatollah’s speeches,” he said. “Now we are using the internet.”

The United Nations says that more than 4,200 Iranians have sought refugee status since the elections. Two athletes from the national wrestling and karate teams, an anchor on state television and a film director have applied for political asylum in Europe. Columbia University in New York has seen applications from Iranian students rise 20-fold this year.

Western governments, preoccupied with the nuclear issue, appear to have accepted Ahmadinejad’s re-election and written off the revolutionaries. But Sazegara insists they will not be defeated. “We were really encouraged by the size and geographic spread of last week’s protests,” he said.

The next plan involves the Shi’ite religious holiday of Muharram, which starts this week. Traditionally people take to the streets with green flags for the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. “A door has been opened that cannot be closed,” said Sazegara. “We hope to mobilise millions. After that the countdown for the regime will be started — or not.”

30 years of upheaval


Shah is overthrown. Islamic republic declared


Iran-Iraq war begins, lasting eight years


Ayatollah Khomeini dies. Ayatollah Khamenei appointed supreme leader


Reformist Mohammed Khatami elected president


Ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeds him


Ahmadinejad declared winner of disputed June election. Mass demonstrations follow