The Role and Aims of US Democracy Promotion in the Attempted Color Revolution in Iran

By Stephen Gowans

As the head of Freedom House, a CIA-interlocked think-tank [1] that promotes free markets, free enterprise and free trade, Peter Ackerman has been at the forefront of efforts to topple foreign governments that place more emphasis on promoting the welfare of their citizens (and often their own bourgeoisie) than providing export and investment opportunities to US corporations, banks, and investors.

An ex-Wall Street investment banker who was once junk bond trader Michael Milken’s right-hand man, Ackerman’s speciality these days is regime change civil disobedience – training activists in the use of civil disobedience destabilization techniques to bring down foreign governments.

A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-Wall Street insiders’ group that brings together corporate CEOs and lawyers, scholars, and government and military officials to recommend foreign policy positions to the US State Department, Ackerman also heads the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC). Working in parallel with billionaire financier George Soros’ Open Society Institute and The Albert Einstein Institution, the ICNC deploys civil disobedience specialists to teach “activists how to agitate for change against” governments on Washington’s regime change hit list, “going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians.” [2]

Ackerman and other civil disobedience imperialists, like Stephen Zunes, a self-styled progressive who acts as chief apologist for Ackerman among leftists who have romantic illusions about “popular” uprisings [3] give their efforts to topple foreign governments the deceptively reassuring name “democracy promotion.” Democracy promotion, a Bush administration official once said, is a rubric to get people to support regime change that cannot be accomplished through military means. [4] Zunes has also sprung to the defense of Gene Sharp, the head of the Albert Einstein Institution, who advised right-wing Venezuelans on how to use civil disobedience to overthrow Hugo Chavez. More than two years ago, in a March, 2007 interview in The Progressive, Sharp, who says he has been working since 2004 with Iranian dissidents on how to bring down the government in Tehran, predicted that “if somebody doesn’t decide to use military means, it is very likely that there will be a peaceful national struggle there.” [5] In the same interview, Sharp set out his view on how the US should topple governments on its regime change hit list: by using overthrow movements trained in nonviolent direct action, rather than military intervention. This is a view supported by his chief defender, Zunes, who thinks imperialism through non-violence is somehow not imperialism.

Three years ago, and not long after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ackerman, along with Ramin Ahmadi, co-founder of the US State Department-funded Iran Human Rights Document Center [6], sketched out a scenario of Iranians using civil disobedience to topple the Iranian government.

In a January 6, 2006 International Herald Tribune article, prophetically titled “Iran’s future? Watch the streets,” the pair complained that Ahmadinejad promised “to redistribute wealth to the poor and curb capitalists,” and described the new president’s electoral victory as plunging Iranian “society into a mood of despair.”

Iranian society hadn’t plunged into despair, at least the large majority that elected Ahmadinejad hadn’t. Instead, it was the losers, “Iran’s parliamentary reformists” and the wealthy, Western-educated Iranians they represented, who were in despair. In Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s view, this stratum, a budding comprador class, was equal to Iranian society as a whole, rather than a minority whose interests were about to be curbed by the newly elected president.

Looking ahead, Ahmadi and his Freedom House co-author, pointed to “a grass-roots movement…waiting to be roused in Iran,” that would “demand real economic reform,” so long as “its cadres” were provided “a clear strategic vision and leadership.” “Grass-roots” by Ackerman’s and Ahamdi’s restrictive definition, was anyone targeted by Ahmadinejad’s redistribution and capitalist-curbing program. “Economic reform” was giving capital free rein.

The model for overthrowing the income-redistributing, capitalist-curbing Ahmadinejad, they wrote, would be the Polish trade union Solidarity, which worked to destabilize another set of capitalist-unfriendly income-redistributors, the communist government of Poland. Solidarity – the only trade union Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the CIA and the Wall Street Journal ever liked — was instrumental in the collapse of Polish communism, and more widely, in the demise of socialism in Eastern Europe. Western corporations and investors seeking export and investment opportunities in Eastern Europe – people represented by Ackerman and Soros — profited handsomely, but for ordinary people, communism’s demise has been a disaster. Poverty, unemployment, economic insecurity and inequality have soared. [7]

To help Iran’s disgruntled budding comprador class, the pair urged “nongovernmental organizations around the world” to “expand their efforts to assist Iranian civil society, women’s groups, unions and journalists. And the global news media,” they wrote, should “cover the steady stream of strikes, protests, and other acts of opposition.” In other words, the media should play a role by depicting the Iranian government as deeply unpopular to justify its overthrow.

Significantly, organizations like Freedom House, ICNC, and the Soros Open Society Institute, operating on grants from Western governments, parliaments and corporate foundations – all of which were opposed to Ahmadinejad for his asserting Iran’s right to a self-reliant civilian nuclear power industry and refusal to accelerate the sale of Iran’s state-owned economy to private investors — would provide the strategic vision, leadership, as well as the money and training, for Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s slumbering grass-roots movement.

In May of 2005, R. Nicholas Burns, then U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the U.S. was ready to hike funding to groups within Iran seeking regime change. The United States had already spent $1.5 million in 2004 and $3 million in 2005 on exile groups with contacts inside Iran. [8]

Burns equated the ramped up spending to “taking a page from the playbook” on Ukraine and Georgia, where, as the New York Times explained,” in those countries the United States gave money to the opposition and pro-democracy groups, some of which later supported the peaceful overthrow of the governments in power.” [9]

But it would take longer to spark a color revolution in Iran, Burns warned. “We don’t have a platform to do it. The country isn’t free enough to do it. It’s a much more oppressive environment than Ukraine was…during the Orange Revolution” where the U.S. was able to take advantage of the country’s openness to overturn the election of a pro-Russian government to install a pro-Washington one. [10]

On February 15, 2005, then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added $75 million to the $10 million already earmarked for U.S. government programs to “support networks for Iranian reformers, political dissidents and human rights activists.” Two-thirds of the additional funding was to be used to “increase television broadcasting to 24 hours a day all week in Farsi into Iran.” [11] The purpose of the broadcasting was to sour the population on the Ahmadinejad government.

The country was soon awash in regime change funding, a cornucopia that led some opponents of the government to beseech the United States to tighten its pursue strings. The funding, they said, made all opponents, especially those with Western contacts, appear to be potential conspirators. The group added that “no credible civil society member would want to be associated with such a fund.” [12] But there were many non-credible ones that did.

Meanwhile, Ackerman’s ICNC was inviting Iranians to workshops to teach them how peaceful revolts in Georgia, the Philippines and elsewhere were set off. Training sessions were held “every month or so, hoping to foment a non-violent conflict in Iran.” [13]

Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s comparison of Iran’s aspiring color revolutionaries to Solidarity is only partly correct. Unlike the former, who tend to be well-heeled, well-educated, and to have spent time abroad, Solidarity was born of a genuinely working class grass-roots movement, which had legitimate grievances against Poland’s Communist government. [14] The grievances of the aspiring color revolutionaries, however, are rooted in a contested election which the balance of evidence suggests was fair. A Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored poll, carried out three weeks before the election, found that Ahmadinejad led his nearest rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, by a margin of more than two to one, similar to the outcome of the vote. [15] The head of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, hardly an Ahmadinejad supporter, found no greater irregularities in Iran’s presidential election than in those of Western countries. [16] On the other hand, claiming that an election is stolen, and using the alleged fraud as a pretext to launch a campaign of civil disobedience, is a hallmark of the regime change programs Ackerman has been at the center of. [17]

Where the color revolutionaries and Solidarity are similar is in serving as the vehicles of the same class. Solidarity was quickly hijacked by anti-communist intellectuals who provided the strategic vision and leadership, with the help of financing from Eastern European émigrés assisted by the CIA. They had no interest in helping the Polish working class, which remained solidly committed to socialism. [18] They sought, instead, to destabilize the Polish government.

Likewise, Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s slumbering “grassroots” movement has been roused by civil disobedience regime change promoters from outside and wealthy locals who have soaked up pro-imperialist values while studying abroad. They’ve taken a leaf from Western-backed color revolutions carried out in other countries, ones Ackerman and company have been instrumental in promoting. Their interest lies not in the social welfare of the majority of Iranians, who appear to have voted for Ahmadinejad, but in destabilizing the Iranian government to serve their own narrow class interests.

Many leftists have turned a blind eye to the class character of Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s “grassroots movement,” as well as to the source of its strategic vision and leadership. They have done so out of infatuation with the romance of a seemingly popular uprising, dislike of Ahmadinejad’s social conservatism, and the mistaken belief that the uprising is about democracy and human rights. The “grassroots” movement is hardly grassroots, and its goals are hardly the lofty ones leftists have attributed to it. They are, instead, the goals a wealthy former Wall Street investment banker turned regime change promoter and Washington-insider and wealthy Iranians who have studied at expensive universities in the imperial center, are able to share in common – toppling a government that stands in the way of their mutual enrichment.


According to a March 14, 2006 New York Sun article by staff reporter Eli Lake (“Iran launches a crackdown on democracy activists”), Ackerman and Ahmadi set up workshops in April 2005 to train Iranian dissidents in human rights documentation and nonviolent resistance, activities Ackerman has termed elsewhere as destabilization aimed at “taking power.”

Ahmadi was involved in setting up a workshop in Dubai, sponsored by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. The center was granted $1 million in 2004 by a U.S. “government aid program intended for Iran’s opposition inside the country.”

 “Dubai,” notes Lake, “is emerging as a nexus for the West’s efforts to aid Iran’s opposition” where the U.S. State Department sent “10 special diplomats to monitor activities of (the Iranian government) and assist the opposition.”  

Ackerman’s ICNC also held at least one session with opponents of the Ahmadinejad government, using members of Otpor, the Serb destabilization group trained, funded and equipped by the US government in techniques developed by Gene Sharp, as trainers.

 Sharp, notes Lake, “is generally credited with being the first person to study rigorously the techniques of mass civil disobedience and place them in the context of traditional military strategy.”

1. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988, p. 28.
2. The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
3. Stephen Gowans, “Stephen Zunes and the Struggle for Overseas Profit,”, February 18, 2008.
4. Guy Dinmore, “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran,” Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
5. Stephen Zunes, George Cicariello-Maher & Eva Golinger, “Debate on the Albert Einstein Institution and its involvement in Venezuela,” August 5, 2008.,; Amitabh Pal, “Gene Sharp Interview,” The Progressive, March, 2007.
6. Steve Weissman, “Iran: Nonviolence 101,”, June 21, 2009.
7. Stephen Gowans, “Hail the Reds,”, October 23, 2004.
8. The New York Times, May 29, 2005.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. The New York Times, February 16, 2006.
12. Carah Ong, “Iranians Speak Out on Regime Change Slush Fund,” MRZine, July 15, 2008.
13. Reuters, April 30, 2003.
14. Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland, Praeger, New York, 1984.
15. Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009; Stephen Gowans, “Iranian electoral fraud: A skeptic’s view,”, June 16, 2009.
16. George Galloway, “I’m not a traitor…or a hypocrite,”, June 29, 2009.
17. Stephen Gowans, “Learning for color revolutions,”, March 16, 2009.
18. Szymanski

6 thoughts on “The Role and Aims of US Democracy Promotion in the Attempted Color Revolution in Iran

  1. More articles–including from the mainstream media–that prove the role of the USA and its allies in fomenting the “Green Revolution” in Iran.

    Anticipating a Coup

    Has the U.S. Played a Role in Fomenting Unrest During Iran’s Election?

    U.S. grants support to Iranian dissidents

  2. The reform movement, and Barry Grey says it better than I can, is “a coalition of the business elite and dissident factions of the clerical establishment, backed by the CIA and the US State Department, which has mobilized sections of students and the middle class behind a program of pro-market economics and an accommodation with US imperialism.” If Proyect, leader of the MarxMail Party, wants to join “the stampede of middle-class liberal and ‘left’ forces into the camp of imperialism,” that’s his business. All I can say is that I’m not greatly surprised. Nor would I be surprised to discover that his analysis, which consists of nothing more than brief comments on what he thinks of those who have actually done one, originates in a desire to take any position that is not that of the Workers World Party.

  3. FYI a reply to my comments on Louis’ Blog:

    Id like people to give examples of vote fraud as alleged by Saheed Rahnema.

    Comment by brian — July 11, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    Gowans is an idiot. His methodology is to automatically come to the aid of any government that outfits like Soros and Freedom House oppose. You don’t need a brain to write such “analysis”. A cabbage would suffice.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 11, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    If Gowans is an ‘idiot’, why do you link to him on your blog? Or is his idiocy only on occasion?

    But as you well know, name calling is no substitute for analysis!

    Comment by brian — July 11, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

  4. FYI stephen:

    ‘Wilayto also adopts a stratagem that is found in Workers World articles when dealing with characters like Mugabe or Ahmadinejad. The author finds evidence to make them look irresistible. In the case of Ahmadinejad, this most frequently takes the form of hailing his populist measures that benefit the poor. This we are led to understand trumps democratic rights, a kind of paternalism generally associated with Stalinism of the 1940s and 50s.’

    Interesting dialetic…BUT Louis also links to your blog! maybe he hasnt read it.

  5. It’s almost certainly a bit of each, but mainstream Western media outlets have been pushing the former. Both the Times of London and the Wall St. Journal published articles this week about the opposition finding new and creative ways to protest amidst the crackdown. As much as we love reading about that sort of stuff here at WNV, it’s always a bit odd to see conservative papers supporting protesters. I suppose that’s why voices on the left, within the independent media, have surfaced with accusations of meddling by the US government and imperialism through nonviolence.”

    A “bit odd.” Not really.

    Apparently, it hasn’t dawned upon the self-proclaimed activists of “Waging NonViolence” the underlying reason why Corporate media mouthpieces like the Times of London and Wall Street Journal are cheerleading the Colored (counter) Revolution in Iran:

    This so-called revolution is aimed at restoring American and Western imperial control of Iran.

    The fact that many supposed American and Western progressives have also effectively supported this political agenda shows what they are about at base: the Left Wing of Western Imperialism.

    Ultimately, the type of “activism” practiced by groups like Waging NonViolence is a kind of navel-gazing Middle Class activism–a lifestyle politics that does challenge the American Empire or their own power and privilege as citizens of this empire.

    In short, this type of “activism” is perfect for the likes of Peter Ackerman and the Albert Einstein version of “non-violence.”

    Soft and Undercover Coups d’État
    The Albert Einstein Institution: non-violence according to the CIA

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