This week like thousands of others I was was moved to tears by the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe pleading for her release after the Boris Johnson mis-statement that she had been ‘training journalists’ before her arrest. Nobody should ever be jailed for training journalists, but something got lost in the coverage which was too complicated to explain in a 3 minute news report - the reason why the Iranians charged her with ‘plotting to topple the Iranian regime’. This is the back story of how Nazanin came to be incarcerated at Evin that nobody is talking about.
In 2005 with US troops committed in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the Iranian nuclear programme projected by some analysts to produce a deliverable nuclear weapon within 10 years, President Bush commissioned a democracy programme designed to foment a nonviolent revolution in Iran. This was designed to do what couldn't be brought about militarily - bring democracy to Iran. The program was headed by a senior State Department official called David Denehy who had recently returned from working for Paul Wofowitz in Iraq’s Green Zone. The boss of the effort was the senior Adviser to the Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Liz Cheney, the daughter of Vice President Cheney. She tasked Denehy to come up with a plan to initiate a transition to a democratic Iranian system with a nonviolent strategy.
There were two unique features of the plan Denehy would design - the first was that it would ‘empower’ Iranian citizens and civil society organisations based on the model of power nonviolent theorist Gene Sharp laid out in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Any government relied on their ‘pillars of support’ the police, the military, the media, judiciary, religious organisations, universities etc. If these could be influenced by various means to disobey the government and ally with the democratic movement, then a nonviolent transition to a democratic government might take place. (N.B The internal documents of Gene Sharp’s institution show that he and his organisation refused cooperation with this program)
The second unique feature was that unlike the CIA political influence operations of the past, the program would be made public. So on 15th February 2006 Condoleeza Rice formally requested $75million from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to, “enable us to increase our support for democracy and improve our radio broadcasting, begin satellite television broadcast, increase the contacts between our peoples through expanded fellowships and scholarships for Iranian students, and to bolster our public democracy efforts."
Once the money was approved, Denehy and his staff set about channelling millions of dollars to Iranian and international NGOs working in the field of human rights, election monitoring, political education and strategic planning of nonviolent action (effectively, how to start a revolution). Some of this money went to organisations inside Iran and part of the funding was for 'offshore training'. ie taking activists/journalists out of Iran, training them where it was safe to do so and then sending the trainees back inside the country.
British intelligence also played a role identifying influential NGOs and thought leaders and making sure the money was being spent appropriately. Funds were even set aside so that when the Iranians moved to begin strikes in key sectors like the energy and transport network, their salaries would appear in brown envelopes from persons unknown, extending the life of industrial action and putting more pressure on the regime.
Of course all this activity against the Iranian government had to be seen - so large amounts of UK/US money was spent on facebook and twitter, setting up blogs, satellite TV stations and organising journalism training both inside Iran and offshore.
The money trail was made deliberately hard to follow and many of the recipient NGO organisations were not necessarily aware that their funding was part of the US program. However, the Iranians believe that BBC Media Action and The Reuters Foundation, organisations that Nazanin worked for, were some of the organisations involved.
Training journalists is something in Western democracies that we consider completely benign, both BBC Media Action and Reuters Foundation claim to be politically neutral, which is true to a point, but they do state that they train journalists in order to 'build' or 'promote democracy’. This of course to an authoritarian state is a deeply political statement of intent, especially when set in the context of a publicly declared US program to promote its overthrow.
The Iranians reacted to the Bush program very quickly and started raiding every international NGO or local NGO funded by the international community, arresting large numbers of people inside the country and those who had recently returned from the offshore training camps (some of these run by journalism training organisations.
This played havoc with Iranian civil society and some of the NGOs who had not taken any US money were just as badly hit, resulting in some prominent Iranians like Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to call for an end to the US program. Officials at the State Department shrugged and continued. Many innocent organisations were closed down in the crossfire right up until 2009 when Obama became President and Anne-Marie Slaughter at the State Department advocated a draw down in democracy promotion widely believed in Washington to be a diplomatic gesture to move the Iranians towards the nuclear deal. Assistance continued at a passive level only, helping Iranian democracy groups with communications technology and journalism training.
So, somewhere along the line the Foreign Office briefings for Boris Johnson have included this backstory and that Nazanin had 'only been training journalists'. The problem being that an Iranian working for an organisation which trains journalists to ‘support democracy’ in the country is still considered part of the US/UK program to nonviolently overthrow the Iranian government. (That outlandish charge by the Iranians isn't actually very outlandish at all). The likelihood is that someone or more than one person that Iranian intelligence arrested has cited the BBC Persian course run by BBC Media Action as one of their training organisations. The moment Nazanin stepped back into the country, even though she perhaps wasn't training journalists on that particular trip, she was arrested for being a threat to the regime.
Iranian Intelligence, though ruthless, is a professional outfit and the authorties will not have done this lightly. The message they are sending is clear - if you are Iranian or of Iranian origin and you act against the government whether in this country, or outside it, you will not be able to safely visit the country again.
Once you understand the back story to this you can see why the Boris gaffe actually pales into insignificance in the grand scheme of the UK/Iranian relationship. The UK has supported the US effort to achieve nonviolent regime change in Iran and used thousands of people like Nazanin as pawns. The bargaining chip to get her out may be the cessation of all remnants of the Bush era program. Will the US concede to that under Trump? That seems unlikely.
There are strong arguments for democracy promotion in a country where human rights are regularly violated and political prisoners endure horrific conditions in prisons like Evin. Perhaps we should support these nonviolent efforts to achieve political freedoms - the casualties are certainly fewer than a military engagement. Whatever the merits of that argument, Nazanin is a victim of this new form of warfare, now in use by the US and Russia among others, which uses civilian organisations to cultivate regime change and inevitably turns civilians into targets.