The green revolution is not the orange revolution

Dan Senor and Christian Whiton have an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal with some suggestions for how the United States could effectively help the reformists in Iran. It’s a tricky subject and creative thinking is certainly welcome (my colleague Chris Brose has weighed in on this), but Senor and Whiton’s bold declaration that “Our ...

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KIEV, UKRAINE: (FILES) A file picture taken 28 November 2004 shows protestors at Ukraine's "orange revolution" waving a US flag along with that of Ukraine at a demonstration in central Kiev. The work of US-funded NGOs has come under blistering criticism during the popular protests. AFP PHOTO / FILES / MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Dan Senor and Christian Whiton have an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal with some suggestions for how the United States could effectively help the reformists in Iran. It's a tricky subject and creative thinking is certainly welcome (my colleague Chris Brose has weighed in on this), but Senor and Whiton's bold declaration that "Our own experience with dissidents around the world is that proof of concern by the U.S. government is helpful and desirable" worries me a bit, paritcularly in their choice of Ukraine's 2004 Orance Revolution as a model:

Mr. Obama should deliver another taped message to the Iranian people. Only this time he should acknowledge the fundamental reality that the regime lacks the consent of its people to govern, which therefore necessitates a channel to the "other Iran." He should make it clear that dissidents and their expatriate emissaries should tell us what they most need and want from the U.S. This could consist of financial resources, congresses of reformers, workshops or diplomatic gatherings. The key is to let the reformers call the shots and indicate how much and what U.S. assistance they want. Simply knowing we care, that we are willing to deploy resources and are watching their backs -- to the extent we can -- often helps reformers.

Dan Senor and Christian Whiton have an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal with some suggestions for how the United States could effectively help the reformists in Iran. It’s a tricky subject and creative thinking is certainly welcome (my colleague Chris Brose has weighed in on this), but Senor and Whiton’s bold declaration that “Our own experience with dissidents around the world is that proof of concern by the U.S. government is helpful and desirable” worries me a bit, paritcularly in their choice of Ukraine’s 2004 Orance Revolution as a model:

Mr. Obama should deliver another taped message to the Iranian people. Only this time he should acknowledge the fundamental reality that the regime lacks the consent of its people to govern, which therefore necessitates a channel to the “other Iran.” He should make it clear that dissidents and their expatriate emissaries should tell us what they most need and want from the U.S. This could consist of financial resources, congresses of reformers, workshops or diplomatic gatherings. The key is to let the reformers call the shots and indicate how much and what U.S. assistance they want. Simply knowing we care, that we are willing to deploy resources and are watching their backs — to the extent we can — often helps reformers.

The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine is a model. In that case the West joined Ukrainians in refusing to accept the results of a stolen election. This combined effort helped to force a final run-off vote that reflected the people’s will. In Iran, this would mean not only redoing elections but also allowing a full field of candidates to run. As with Ukraine and the Soviet Union before, Mr. Obama could at least make it clear that the U.S. will separate the issues of engagement and legitimacy. Our engagement of the Soviet Union in arms-control talks did not prevent us from successfully pressing human-rights issues and seeking an alternative political structure. So it can be with Iran. Engagement without an effort to talk to the “other Iran” would not only be a travesty but tactically foolish as well.

Not every revolution is a “color” revolution. The visuals from Tehran may resemble Kiev in 2004, but the message from the streets is different. Both are nationalist movements in addition to democratic movements (as most successful democratic movements are) but Ukrainian and Iranian nationalism are very different beasts.

In Ukraine that nationalism could be directed against a government dominated by an outside power, Russia. The orange coalition (like the Polish Solidarity movement, which Senor and Whiton also cite) welcomed overt U.S. signs of support because it counteracted the support the pro-government forces were receiving from the Kremlin. The coalition billed itself as pro-Western.

In Iran, the protesters are crying allahu akbar from the rooftops and marching behind a fairly conservative hero of the 1979 revolution. They’re protesting a probably rigged election, yes, but the nationalist rhetoric coming out of the movements leaders is not about rejoining the West but about protecting the Islamic state from Ahmadinejad’s corrupt and bungling rule. 

On a more practical level, U.S. NGOs were involved in the run-up to the Ukrainian election, supporting poll monitoring and training activists so when the trouble started, they were in place to help out. This is certainly not the case in Iran.

This is not to say that a Mousavi presidency wouldn’t be better for the United States, or that the U.S. government shouldn’t be seeking out ways it can help (Evgeny Morozov has one novel idea) but it seems odd to assume that the young people marching in the streets of Tehran would welcome the outspoken support of the U.S. president just because other young people marching in other streets have welcomed it in the past. 

AFP/Getty Images 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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