Iran's government has used violence, intimidation, and incarceration to keep the country's opposition at bay since the flawed election there last June. Now, the news trickling out of Tehran this week suggests that a more sophisticated ideological effort is underway -- the "soft war" reported in the New York Times. This goes further than closing opposition news outlets and now reportedly includes placing Basij militia instructors in elementary schools, more media controlled by the country's Revolutionary Guard, and expanded surveillance of the Internet.
Iran's leaders claim they are facing nothing less than a Western-directed "color revolution," just as Russia's allies did in Ukraine, where the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005 swept the streets with democratic fervor. But the Orange Revolution was a genuine expression of popular anger, not a plot orchestrated from Washington or Brussels. It was however, aided by diplomacy. Western diplomats can draw on experience learned in Kiev to help the "green movement" in Tehran. The United States and particularly Europe should be doing much more to engage and cultivate this newly vocal "other Iran," sustaining its calls for a democratically chosen government.
Despite obvious differences, the Ukraine of the 1990s had some similarities to today's Iran in its nondemocratic character. Athough Ukraine held regular elections during that period, the U.S. NGO Freedom House noted in 2001 that fewer than 25 percent of Ukrainians considered their country a democracy. Reform-minded politicians had been ousted, and civil liberties were trampled.
But the situation began to evolve in 2002. For the first time, Ukrainian voters expressed strong support for the opposition in parliamentary elections, despite irregularities, government tampering, and violence against reformers. Following that, Washington and European governments joined the Ukrainian opposition to apply pressure for fair and independently observed elections. Election-monitoring organizations also helped amplify the message. Diplomacy helped transform the next election into a matter of international, not just domestic, concern. This should be a key goal in Iran.