A Response to Steve Weissman's "Nonviolence 101"

Monday, 29 June 2009 11:51 By Stephen Zunes, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

A Response to Steve Weissman
Iranian protesters. (Photo: alanoftulsa / Flickr)

    Steve Weissman's article "Iran: Nonviolence 101" was profoundly inaccurate and misleading, particularly in regard to the role of Peter Ackerman and the organization he co-founded, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), for which I chair the committee of academic advisers.

    All of Weissman's arguments against US government involvement in training and related support for nonviolent resistance movements in Iran, which he put forward in his article, would be quite valid - if they were true.

    They are not, however.

    First of all, while the US has armed and supported Kurdish and Baluchi guerrillas in Iran and has funneled money to some other rather dubious opposition groups (primarily consisting of exiles with virtually no popular support within the country), I have never seen any evidence whatsoever of any US government involvement in the training of Iranian dissidents in strategic nonviolent action.

    Secondly, while ICNC has facilitated some seminars and workshops which provide generic information on the history, theory and dynamics of strategic nonviolent action - including one in Dubai for Iranians four years ago - there was no training in Hushmail or any communications technology, as Weissman alleges, nor was any other specific training or applications part of that or any other workshop.

    More significantly, ICNC's charter prevents it from accepting any government funding. Furthermore, ICNC's charter specifically forbids providing any guidance, direction, money or material assistance to any individual or group.

    Similarly, Dr. Ackerman has never worked for the US government and does not provide that kind of practical support either. All his presentations on the topic - as with all the educational projects of ICNC, like the Dubai workshop - have simply entailed generic information on the history, theory and dynamics of strategic nonviolent action, and have not included any specific advice or any kind of logistical support.

    Furthermore, no one associated with ICNC to my knowledge has ever had any conversations about "regime change" in Iran with anybody, certainly not with anyone affiliated with the US government.

    Despite Weissman's claims that Ackerman and ICNC only work with those who oppose governments Washington doesn't like, ICNC has supported at least as many seminars and workshops for those challenging US-backed governments, including West Papuans, Western Saharans, Guineans, Azerbaijanis, indigenous Guatemalans as well as immigrants rights activists here in the United States, among many others. And, despite Weissman's insistence to the contrary, ICNC has also worked with those engaged in nonviolent resistance in Egypt, Colombia and the Israeli-occupied territories. Dr. Ackerman himself has been to Cairo and Ramallah to speak to Egyptian and Palestinian activists on nonviolent resistance. By contrast, he has never been to Iran or engaged in workshops with Iranians.

    Meanwhile, while the US government has directly and indirectly funded opposition groups in various countries, it has never provided "training for non-violent revolutions." The US government doesn't know the first thing about nonviolent revolutions. The US government knows a lot about invasions, coups, and other violent means of intervention, but I'm yet to find any major US official who knows anything about how to foment a successful nonviolent revolution.

    Weissman's depiction of Dr. Ackerman simply as a "Wall Street whiz kid" is rather misleading, given that he is best known for his scholarly work on strategic nonviolent action, the topic of his doctoral dissertation. His books "Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century" and "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict" are among the best in the field, the latter of which became a three-part PBS special, which is used in peace studies programs across the country. Similarly, while quite wealthy, Ackerman is certainly not a billionaire, as Weissman claims. Personally, I'm glad someone with money has been willing to put part of his wealth into promoting the understanding of strategic nonviolent action as an alternative to both passivity and war.

    Weissman quotes from Ackerman's 2006 op-ed from the International Herald Tribune are so highly selective as to be misleading. He did not provide a link to it in his article, but if you actually read the original op-ed, you'll find that it actually comes out against "external intervention." While it calls on governments to try to pressure the Iranian regime to stop oppressing its people, it says that only NGOs should be involved with actively supporting Iranian civil society groups. The op-ed also stresses that these NGOS should only provide support for what the Iranians are already doing, as opposed to providing them direction or strategic advice. This is no different than what women's groups, environmental groups, human rights organizations, trade unions, and other groups are doing in support for their counterparts in countries all around the world. Yet, Weissman makes it sound like it's some kind of conspiracy.

    In addition, rather than being part of the "hot-bed of neo-con support for American intervention" at Freedom House, Dr. Ackerman actually battled the neocons within that 68-year old organization in what was apparently an unsuccessful effort to separate it from the US government and partisan politics.

    It's also clear from his article that Weissman does not know much about the recent history of pro-democracy uprisings. Despite his claims to the contrary, there has never been an attempted "color revolution" in Venezuela. There was a short-lived military coup in 2002, which soon collapsed due to an outpouring of support for the democratically-elected government of Hugo Chavez; there was a temporary shut down of the oil industry a couple of years later, which folded for lack of popular support; and, there have been occasional small protests. There has never been anything like the popular nonviolent uprisings, which have resulted in the downfall of autocratic governments in the Philippines, Chile, Serbia, Mali, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Indonesia, Georgia, Nepal, Ukraine, the Maldives, and other countries over the past couple of decades.

    In any case, despite Weissman's insinuations to the contrary, neither Ackerman nor ICNC had any connections whatsoever with Georgians prior to their 2003 uprising against the corrupt and unpopular Shevardnadze regime. ICNC has provided some videos, books and simulation games to some Venezuelans and Ukrainians who requested them, as they have for Palestinians, Egyptians, Western Saharans, West Papuans, Guineans, Burmese, and people from scores of other countries, without asking any questions about their politics. The only time ICNC ever sent someone to Venezuela was when they supported a trip by me and radical pacifist David Hartsough to the World Social Forum in 2006; while there, we met with some Venezuelan government officials about how strategic nonviolent action could be used to resist a possible coup attempt against that country's democratically-elected government, not foment one.

    Not only does Weissman not know his facts, he did not even bother to interview Dr. Ackerman or anyone affiliated with ICNC in putting together his article to see if they were correct. If he had, he would have known the assertions he makes in his article are totally groundless.

    Similarly, if he had bothered to do his research, he would have noted that ICNC advisers and consultants consist of such radical scholars and activists as Sonoma State political science Professor and Truthout contributor Cynthia Boaz; the noted anarcho-pacifist Swedish scholar of resistance studies Stellan Vinthagen; the veteran peace activist and sociologist Les Kurtz; Canadian activist Philippe Duhomel, a principal organizer of the anti-FTAA demonstrations in Quebec City; South African leftist Janet Cherry, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle in both the ANC and UDF; and, the prominent progressive New Zealand peace scholar Kevin Clements. These are hardly the kinds of people who would work with the government to advance US imperialism in Iran or anywhere else.

    It is also bizarre to imply that the United States has anything to do at all with the uprising in Iran, given that the opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and the vast majority of his supporters are strongly nationalist, anti-American, anti-imperialist and would neither desire nor accept US support. Indeed, the last thing the United States would want is a popular and legitimate Islamist government in Iran, which is why neoconservatives and other hawks were hoping for an Ahmadinejad victory. It also ignores the longstanding Iranian tradition of such largely nonviolent civil insurrections against imperialist powers and autocratic rulers and that, given this history, no outside power is needed to convince the Iranian people to rebel.

    With all the very real manifestations of US imperialism and interventionism out there, it is rather bizarre that Weissman would choose to write about a phony one.

Last modified on Monday, 29 June 2009 15:14