Pardon me while I have a moment of conspiracy-theory deja vu. Back in the fall of 2007, during the height of Burma's Saffron Revolution, I was repeatedly called upon (as one of the few Western analysts of the civil resistance going on there) to answer the claim that the uprising in that country was not indigenous, but rather the work of some number of democracy-promoting entities from the West, including but not limited to: the NED, the Open Society Institute, the CIA, and a handful of experts and trainers in strategic nonviolent conflict. As several members of the pro-democracy movement in Burma are well known to me, and I feel a very strong sense of solidarity with their ongoing 20+ year struggle against one of the world's most brutal regimes, I was somewhat insulted on their behalf at the implication that it wasn't really the people of Burma who were responsible for the events unfolding in their country. In a piece for Truthout in November of that year, I wrote that:
[These] claims signal that those who should be most encouraged by mass displays of civilian resistance to tyranny may have bought into the propaganda of the Burmese junta and its backers in China. [People] who should know better (many of the progressive web sites who have reported on these 'theories') are actually doing the movement in Burma a great disservice by strengthening the hand of the junta there, and potentially undermining the momentum of the resistance.
[A key] misconception comes from a degree of ignorance about how nonviolent struggle works. To claim nonviolent protests of the scale we witnessed in late September in Burma can be manufactured abroad is to grossly overestimate the influence of US agents and agencies. How could US agencies organize broad-based protests and manage to get hundreds of thousands to maintain nonviolent discipline half a world away, while these same agencies have, for 50 years, been unable to remove the now 81-year-old, and reportedly invalid, Fidel Castro from his perch only 90 miles from the US border and with a population one-fifth the size of Burma's? These kinds of claims show contempt for what the people of Burma are doing, which is to assert control of their own destiny. They have had enough of repression, fear and poverty. This is their struggle, and they deserve, like all people who are struggling for justice, respect for having sovereignty over their own lives and credit for their courage and sacrifice in the face of oppression.
Not surprisingly, these same questions are now being raised about the protests currently taking place in Iran. I personally received several email responses to my recent piece critiquing mainstream media coverage of Iran which accused me, amongst other things, of secretly working with everyone from the CIA to "Zionist Israel forces" [sic] who want to install their own preferred regime in Iran.
Maybe the biggest shame is that most of those disseminating these theories are not paranoid fringe radicals, but well-meaning individuals harboring legitimate -- if misplaced -- concerns. A decade of neoconservative "democracy promotion" understandably has turned otherwise sane people skeptical. But to quote my friend Stephen Zunes, "the beauty of strategic nonviolent action is that it cannot succeed in threatening any government's rule unless the regime has lost its legitimacy with the people (i.e., Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia, etc.) and the opposition has widespread popular support."
You don't need to believe me. There are thousands of Iranian-American pro-democracy activists who have made their presence known over the past week; ask any one of them. Many blog on this very website. The Iranian people have periodically risen up against oppressive rulers over the decades, and they don't need external forces to tell them what to do. There are numerous movements in Iran that have been organizing for years. Ahmadinejad's hubris and ignorance in attempting to steal this election has given those movements a window of opportunity to join together and collectively demand an end to the oppression. Do folks really think US agencies -- of whom the Iranian people have every reason to be suspicious given the last 8 years (and beyond) -- are capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people who are ten thousand miles away...and then getting them to continue showing up on the streets, even when they're being shot at? The notion is ridiculous, even ethnocentric in that it presumes that Iranians are so ignorant that they'd turn out in scores to risk their lives just because an American agency suggested it. No, the Green Revolution belongs solely to the Iranians.
The reality is that regardless of political party or ideology, anyone who claims an affinity for democracy as people power owes it to the courageous Iranian people to recognize their resistance as such. To seriously question the Iranians' ownership of their struggle serves the interests of a brutal regime and risks undermining the morale of individuals participating in a true peoples' movement.