The Specter of “Soft Overthrow”

By Abbas Djavadi – A specter is haunting the Islamic Republic of Iran — the specter of “soft overthrow.”

A week ago Iranian authorities announced that four individuals were soon to face a court process for plotting a “US-backed soft overthrow” attempt. Soon it was announced that two of them are well-known Iranian AIDS specialists, brothers Arash and Kamyar Alaei, who were arrested last June. The names of other two have not been yet disclosed.

Three days ago the two were sentenced to six and three years in prison, respectively. They were running HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs in Iran, travelling back and forth, and participating at international conferences on AIDS. Arash Alaei was also a post-graduate student at the Albany School of Public Health of New York.

No reason enough for being sentenced to prison under the Article 508 of Iran’s Criminal Code? It states: “Any individual or group cooperating in any form with hostile foreign countries against the Islamic Republic will be, if convicted, sentenced to one to 10 years in prison.”

Studying in the US? Running AIDS treatment and prevention programs? Travelling to Western countries? Cooperating with hostile countries against the Islamic Republic? The Justice Authority’s spokesperson has called Alaei brothers’ activities “efforts funded by US government for a soft overthrow of the Islamic Republic.”

Actually nothing that much new. Two weeks ago, the BBC launched its Persian TV from London. Iranian authorities declined to permit the BBC accreditation to open and run an office in Tehran to file reports back to London. Justice Authority: the BBC Persian TV is part of international effort of “soft overthrow.” A year ago, an employee of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, a service in Farsi, who was in Tehran to visit her ailing mother, was barred from leaving Iran for eight months: plotting against the Islamic Republic in an effort of “soft overthrow.”

Earlier, Iranian-American academics such as Haleh Esfandiari from Woodrow Wilson Institute were arrested and put in prison in Tehran while they travelled home to visit their relatives: they were also part of “soft overthrow” efforts.

If a student or a professor travels to a Western country (obviously not Syria or Russia) to attend an academic conference, he or she may be arrested upon return at the Khomeini International Airport in Tehran: talking to the enemies, plotting against the Islamic Republic – ”soft overthrow.”

How can you “softly overthrow” a government? After the colored revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, Tehran panicked that Washington would try to instigate a similarly non-violent, peaceful change of regime in Iran. Talk was about the Bush administration’s “plans” for supporting or funding a “velvet revolution” in Iran. Seemingly, that term is no longer fashionable. Iranian authorities found a new term specifically designed for Iran, but with the same content.

Talk is not about an armed struggle, not about violence or terror, and not even about any political action. It’s primarily about academic and intellectual, social, cultural activities of any kind that are peaceful and somehow, closely or distantly connected to Western personalities, groups, organizations, universities and alike.

Recently I heard an Iranian journalist loyal to the Islamic Republic, saying that one should understand Tehran’s overreaction. “The government, being encircled and threatened for 30 years by the West and more so by the US, feels threatened by any small movement.” I think the Islamic Republic is exactly doing the same thing that the Shah regime was in condemning all intellectual, cultural, academic, or social activities of anybody to be serving “black and red colonial forces” (the West and the Soviet Union), thus uniting all those originally peaceful, non-political activities under one opposition (that was later hijacked by the Islamic Revolution).

The Alaei brothers and others have not been involved in any form in political action, let alone violence. After all, what is wrong with softly and peacefully changing the government if that is shared by the majority of the population? And how do we want to know what the majority wants if there are no free and fair elections?