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Building a New Iran from the Bottom Up

The New Iran aims to build Iran's pro-democracy movement through social media and participatory democracy

Submitted by: Francesca Rheannon

Posted: Sep 27, 2011 – 11:12 PM EST

Tags: social media, democracy, the new iran, leadership, sustainability, politics


By Francesca Rheannon

Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal are free. But not the people of Iran. The two American hikers emerged from their nearly two years in captivity with a chilling tale of enduring isolation and fear, while hearing the screams of fellow prisoners – Iranians – enduring even worse.

Their lawyer, who the pair lavishly praised at their first press conference in New York City on September 25, has denied their allegations of abuse, but anyone who heard Bauer and Fattal speak can recognize the ring of truth in their voices. The lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, claimed the two were “politically motivated” in making their accusations, but it is more likely that Mr. Shafiei himself is politically motivated in his denials, seeking to distance himself from his clients in order to avoid reprisals from the regime for his politically unpalatable representation of them.

The Arab Spring is blooming well into the Fall, but as shown by the extension of martial law by the Egyptian Army, the stranglehold of Syria’s ruler Bashar Assad, and the still-contested victory of the opposition in Libya – won through the bloody sacrifice of tens of thousands of Libyans – it’s a long, hard slog to overturn tyranny.

The Iranians are not Arabs, but the opposition to Iran’s regime cannot fail to take heart in what is happening in the region around them. It must be heartened, as well, to observe the cracks in that regime becoming more public, as I wrote about last week. But the path from internal dissension among its enemies to succeeding in actually bringing democracy to Iran is uncertain and beset with formidable obstacles. It will take constructing alliances among diverse groups and individuals by erecting a structure of trust based on democratic principles and practice. 

That’s what the group The New Iran hopes to do. I spoke with one of its founders, social media entrepreneur and democracy activist Dr. Iman Foroutan. In 2004, Dr. Foroutan founded SOS Iran, a platform for organizing against the regime that includes a TV show in Farsi. From 2004 to 2009, when the idea for The New Iran began to take shape, he talked to many groups. “But unity was elusive,” he told CSRwire. “The main problem is not a lack of resources, talent or the right goal, but coordinating all efforts” of the disparate groups and individuals in the opposition, both inside and outside of Iran, Foroutan said.

In a statement rebutting Ahmadinejad’s recent speech to the UN, The New Iran describes itself as having been designed to serve “as a collective voice and platform for unified action for the many opposition groups struggling to free the Iranian people.” TNI bases itself on five principles, including:

  • National unity;
  • Separation of religion and the state;
  • Commitment to human rights, as expressed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights;
  • Democracy and implementation of free, fair and transparent elections; and
  • Distributed power (“direct participation of all Iranians in local social, cultural, political and economic affairs”).

The linchpin of TNI’s approach to activism is using the Internet and social media technology to further its goals of building a democratic opposition “from the bottom up,” as Foroutan describes it. For example, TNI activists from around the world are drafting a new, human rights-based constitution for Iran – not one hammered out in a backroom by a secretive elite, but openly and transparently on the Web.

This approach develops further the use of technology begun by the youthful activists of the Green Movement, who went out into the streets of Teheran en masse to protest the rigging of the 2009 election, spurred on by activist use of Twitter and Facebook. But the so-called “Twitter revolution” exposed the vulnerabilities of relying on external, corporate sites like Twitter and Facebook to organize protests – the regime was able to hack the sites to discover the identities of users. It also shut down the Internet inside the country.

TNI is using a combination of old and new technology to bypass these vulnerabilities, including user aliases provided to TNI’s website through pay phones and information disseminated by leaflets within Iran. The group is hoping to get help from outside Iran in setting up virtual private networks that can bypass government control.

One year ago, TNI’s website went live. “Within two minutes, the first person joined, living this free democratic society we are preaching,” Foroutan told CSRwire. He says more than half of the group’s members are living in Iran.

TNI will be working to complete the development of a “road map” for the removal of the current Iranian regime and the transition to democratic rule. “The day the regime falls,” Foroutan said, “there needs to be a road map for the management and security of the country, to assure minimal violence and protect borders; to assert control over the banks so the mullahs don’t steal public money and send it outside Iran; and to plan the transition.” TNI expects to formally announce a four-point plan within the next few weeks, but here’s a sneak preview, courtesy of Foroutan:

  • Develop and implement a civil disobedience project of nonviolent protests and strikes inside Iran;
  • Organize international support, including for widening the economic sanctions; and
  • Create a transitional council through democratic, transparent means, including the kind of Web-based technology outlined above. 

It’s an ambitious program – and it remains to be seen if TNI’s commitment to nonviolent action can succeed in the face of the repressive might of the current regime. But other seemingly intractable regimes have fallen with a minimum of violence. And it seems that TNI understands the best way to meet an immovable object like a brutal dictatorship is with the unstoppable force of a people united in their passion for freedom.

About Francesca Rheannon

Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio’s series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.

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