Revolution of the mind

Under siege at home, Iran’s dissidents draw comfort and ideas from some visionary thinkers based here

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / December 20, 2009

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To the residents of East Boston, the faded townhouse on a working class block is just a house. But to Iran’s ruling regime, it is the epicenter of a foreign plot to overthrow its Islamic government.

The house belongs to Gene Sharp, an 81-year-old author whose books on the use of nonviolent methods to undermine authoritarian rule have been read by would-be revolutionaries all over the world.

In the wake of widespread protests in Iran after a disputed presidential election, a mass indictment accused more than 100 Iranian politicians and activists of following the instructions of Sharp, as well as spying for several other US academics, among other charges. So far, about 80 of the accused have received prison sentences, while at least one has been sentenced to death.

The indictment, which appears to target Iranians with connections to the West, has led to soul-searching among some US scholars, many of whom have curtailed communications with Iranian dissidents to avoid putting them in jeopardy. Others, like Sharp, see the charges as a badge of honor, and a sign that their arguments are hitting home. They have no intention of scaling back their activities.

When you write a book about how "dictatorships have weaknesses, the dictators aren't going to be happy," he said, adding that he will keep up communication with activists who reach out to him. "They contact us because they want liberation. They know they are taking a risk. That’s their choice."

Iran specialists dismiss the prosecutors' portrayal of American pro-democracy advocates as leaders of a conspiracy, saying it is evidence of a paranoid streak in the regime and a propaganda tactic aimed at discrediting the protesters by portraying them as puppets of the West. But scholars and activists outside Iran do play a role sharing information and providing moral support for a repressed movement.

Harvard University's Berkman Center for the study of the Internet, and two of its scholars -- John Palfrey and Ethan Zuckerman -- were named as conspirators in the alleged plot to bring down Iran's government, apparently because a now-detained Iranian blogger attended one of their conferences. Gary Sick, a Columbia University professor, was named in the sentencing hearing of an Iranian-American associate.

Palfrey, whose center received State Department funds in 2007 to study the Internet's impact on democracy, said he has curbed his contacts with people in Iran, so as not to endanger them.

"There is always a risk when studying non-democratic countries ... that you may unintentionally harm the people you are talking to," Palfrey said. "Unfortunately, this is the case in Iran today."

Sick has tried to push back against the charges. When Kian Tajbakhsh, who earned his PhD from Columbia, was accused of espionage because of his participation in an academic Internet forum run by Sick, Sick wrote a letter to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to dispute the prosecutor's claim.

The indictment accuses Sick of being a CIA agent, and Tajbakhsh of "acting against national security by being a member of an Internet network linked to the CIA," according to IRNA, Iran's state-run news agency.

"It would be absolutely hilarious if it were not so serious," Sick said. Tajbakhsh has been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

At least 4,000 people were arrested during the protests, and hundreds remain in jail. Released detainees have described how they were tortured, raped, or kept incommunicado in shipping containers to force them to confess to conspiring with foreigners to overthrow the government, according to an Amnesty International report. The indictment quotes one unnamed spy who claimed that Sharp was part of the US government’s alleged plot.

Sharp was neither surprised nor unnerved by the mention of his name in the indictments. He's used to it. For more than 40 years, he has been condemned by the world's most repressive governments, as have activists caught with his books.

A former researcher at Harvard, he runs the little-known Albert Einstein Institute, which dedicates itself to researching nonviolent activism out of a two-room office near a bodega in Maverick Square.

It doesn’t look like the nerve-center of a US-funded coup. He has one assistant, three computers, a teapot, and a dog. Its two rooms are crammed with old boxes, books about Mahatma Gandhi, and a giant, empty aquarium. He doesn't have the energy anymore to care for fish. These days, he has trouble remembering things.

But his writings have been used as a manual for peaceful revolution by activists around the world from Zimbabwe to Belarus to Venezuela. When he was younger, he held training sessions for activists from Cuba, Tibet, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, and sneaked illegally into Burma to meet with activists there.

His 91-page booklet entitled "From Dictatorship to Democracy," written in 1993 at the request of a Burmese activist, was read by protesters who brought democratic governments to power in Ukraine, Serbia, and Georgia.

It lays out 198 nonviolent methods to protest repressive regimes, including mock funerals, boycotts, sick-day strikes, graffiti, and vigils. His writings describe how nonviolent activists must strategize, just like military generals, and be prepared to sacrifice their freedom, or even their lives, just like soldiers.

In Vietnam and Burma, activists have been arrested on grounds of merely owning a copy of the booklet. An opposition leader in Maldives was put under house arrest shortly after he translated it.

In Russia, intelligence agents raided a print shop that was printing it, and two bookstores selling it were burned down. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez gave a televised, 12-minute diatribe against Sharp, falsely accusing him of ties to the CIA.

In Iran, where translations of Sharp's writings have been downloaded tens of thousands of times from his website, state-run media released a video two years ago claiming that Sharp was involved in a vast conspiracy against Iran, along with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Western observers dismissed the video as paranoid government propaganda.

In August, Iranian prosecutors cited Sharp’s work in a televised trial of 110 activists, noting: "More than 100 of the 198 steps in the Gene Sharp manual of instructions for Velvet Revolution have already been executed."

Drewery Dyke, a researcher with Amnesty International, called the indictment a fanciful attempt to discredit the protests by claiming that foreigners were behind them. The accusations have no basis in Iranian law, he said. "Nowhere in the penal code does it say reading books or articles by Gene Sharp constitutes a criminal act," he said.

Hadi Ghaemi, an Iranian human rights activist living in the United States who closely follows the pro-democracy movement, said that the Iranian government has wildly exaggerated Sharp’s role in Iran’s democracy movement.

"The major characteristics of the movement today in Iran is nonviolent, but it is not because they all read Gene Sharp," he said, adding that Sharp’s work is not widely known outside of intellectual circles.

Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco, said Iranians have staged nonviolent protests on their own for more than 100 years, he said, adding: "There is very little that Gene Sharp or any outsider can teach the Iranians about civil insurrection, given their history."