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Persian Puzzlement

About ten days after the start of Iran's insurrection, I asked a senior administration official what, if anything, the White House knew about the people behind the demonstrations. His reply: "I think it is fair to say senior administration officials are busily trying to understand how the opposition is generated and where it came from." In other words, there's a lot about the protesters we still don't know.

True, Mir Hossein Mousavi and the people directly surrounding him are known quantities in the U.S. intelligence community. Both Mousavi and his most powerful ally during the campaign, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were key interlocutors in the Iran-Contra affair. (It was Mousavi's office--working through a deputy named Mohsen Kangarlu--that arranged the details of the exchange of TOW missiles for the release of American hostages kidnapped by Hezbollah in Lebanon.) We also know that Mousavi was a strong supporter of Iran's modern nuclear program. In 2007, Tehran handed over documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency showing that Mousavi approved a decision to purchase centrifuge technology from A.Q. Khan's clandestine black market in 1987. Meanwhile, the Mousavi campaign's head of "voter protection" is Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, who is generally credited with helping to found Hezbollah. During the Lebanon war, he lost his right hand when he opened a book on Shia holy places laden with explosives.

And yet, for all these details, we know very little about the movement that seems to have sprung up around these men almost overnight. "We think we know about Mousavi's organization," one intelligence official told me. "But it looks like he is linking it up with something deeper." A U.S. diplomat who has been monitoring the situation put it this way: "We are getting plenty of reports. But we have no idea what is going on."

This is not the first time U.S. intelligence has been caught off guard by an Iranian movement. A CIA estimate from August 1978 concluded, "Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation." Five months later, the world watched the first Islamic revolution.

Part of the problem today is that most of our spies are focused on Iran's nuclear program and the regime's support for international terrorism. Along those lines, the U.S. military was able to acquire detailed information about the explosives Iran exported to the Iraqi insurgency between 2006 and 2008. By comparison, our spies have been largely disinterested in recent years when it came to Iran's democracy movement. It was left, for example, to private citizens to help Ahmad Batebi--who graced the cover of The Economist during the 1999 student uprising--escape to the United States.

Washington hasn't been completely divorced from Iranian civil society, of course. The State Department under President Bush made a show of financial support for Iranian democrats, requesting a $75-million program to back Iranian civil society in 2006. Foggy Bottom has also funded some projects aimed at evading Internet censorship with an eye toward China and Iran. And, earlier this year, State conducted a Web chat with Iranian scholars on Howard Baskerville, an American missionary who participated in Iran's early twentieth-century Constitutional Revolution and is considered the "American Lafayette."

The budgets of organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute have also funded Iranian democracy promotion. Moreover, there have been projects that did not rely on government funding: In 2005, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict sponsored a seminar in Dubai that was attended by Iranians--some of whom were later arrested by the regime.

But these efforts, whatever their virtues, were fundamentally modest in scope. A lot of the State Department money for civil society went to the Voice of America and Radio Farda. What's more, a portion of the money for programs in Iran remains unspent. "I would never be so arrogant to say the short period of time we administered grants to Iranians was able to affect the events we are now seeing in Iran," says David Denehy, the State Department official who oversaw grants for Iranian democracy promotion between 2005 and 2007. (Denehy did say he thought the programs aimed at opening up the Internet have had some impact.) Moreover, the number of Iranian activists with whom these programs established contact is just too small to give us any good sense of who is leading the democracy movement today. We may know some of the people who attended the seminar in Dubai, for instance, but it's difficult to know whom those attendees later trained and what they are doing today.

Andrew Apostolou, senior program manager at Freedom House, says that, for the most part, the United States was late to the party. "The Dutch were the pioneers in this field, allocating money for Iranian civil society in 2004," he says. "The U.S. only committed large amounts as of 2006, and most of that was for broadcast media. Civil society is a long-term investment."

This hasn't stopped the Iranian government from seeing the hand of the United States everywhere. Several Iranian-Americans have been arrested in recent years--including Haleh Esfandiari, the Woodrow Wilson International Center scholar detained in 2007 while visiting her infirm mother--and accused of fomenting plots to overturn the Islamic Republic through nonviolent means. A propaganda video produced last year by the Ettelaat, Iran's internal security service, featured a fictional meeting with John McCain, George Soros, a CIA officer, and the godfather of strategic nonviolent action, Gene Sharp--all plotting the overthrow of the government. The narrator encouraged Iranians to call a hotline at the intelligence ministry to inform on any neighbors caught up in the McCain-Soros-Sharp plot.

Since Sharp is supposedly the intellectual linchpin of plans to overthrow the regime, I thought he might know something about the protesters. Unfortunately, he seems to be stuck in much the same position as the U.S. government: forced to make guesses about the Iranian freedom movement from afar. Sharp, who has been observing the events in Tehran from the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston, has offered techniques and advice to people-power movements for 40 years but says he is not in touch with organizers of the Iranian revolt. "They have been doing some things within the category of nonviolent action," he says. "There are marches, a very symbolic kind of nonviolent action. There was one march that was silent, a hard thing to pull off." Sharp speculates that the objectives of the movement are changing from disgust at a perceived stolen election to a demand for real democracy. "At first this was about the election. Now they are talking about the regime's reaction and the Supreme Leader," he says. When asked what kind of odds he would give the demonstrators, he replies, "I am holding my breath." And, until it learns more, that is probably what the Obama administration is doing as well.

Eli Lake is a TNR contributing editor and national security correspondent for The Washington Times.