Can Ukraine's Orange Revolution teach us anything about today's protests in Iran?

As I watched events in Iran unfold at the end of last week, I couldn’t help but note the similarities to the “Colored Revolutions” that swept through the post-communist region in the middle of this decade. Pre-election polls predicted a surprisingly competitive election in an erstwhile authoritarian country. Following the election, both sides claimed victory amid allegations of serious electoral fraud. Supporters of the opposition candidate took to the streets, and even had a color--green--lined up to give them the moniker of the “green revolution.”

However, over the past three days, it has become apparent that Tehran is not turning into Kiev. While there are numerous important differences between Iran and the post-communist colored-revolution countries (Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and possibly Kyrgyzstan)--with the most notable being that ultimate executive power in Iran lies with the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is not popularly elected--it does seem to me that the Iranian authorities may have learned a number of specific lessons from their less fortunate post-communist counterparts.

1) If you are going to fix the results of an election, give yourself a big margin of victory. Otherwise, a little electoral fraud can credibly be argued to have swung the outcome of the election (as was the case in the Serbian and Ukrainian presidential election). What was notable about the Iranian election results was not just that the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was declared the winner, but the size of the margin that he was declared to have won by. In Ukraine, for example, the disputed second-round presidential election the regime candidate “won” by less then four points, as opposed to Iran, where Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by an almost 30-point margin. Clearly, no one wanted any wiggle room in this regard, and a second round--which would have been triggered had none of the candidates received a majority of the vote in the first round--was going to be off the table.

2) If you are really going to rig the results of elections, don’t mess around with pretenses of transparency that could end up leaving hard evidence of electoral fraud. In Ukraine, nonpartisan exit polls suggested that the opposition leader had won by nine-point margin; allegations of electoral fraud were widespread and documented, as were suspicious turnout patterns. As compared to the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution,” I am struck by how little we seem to know at this point about the actual breakdown of election results in Iran; nor do we seem to have allegations of specific acts of fraud or anything even vaguely resembling parallel vote counts or exit polls. The paper trail here apparently is going to be much more difficult to follow, if it ever emerges. As of this morning, reports are surfacing that Iran’s Guardian Council will investigate these allegations, so time will tell how successful the regime may have been in this regard. (Of course, the Guardian Council--the same body that has the ability to vet candidates for office and has a history of disqualifying reformist candidates--is not exactly an unbiased observer in this case, so I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for them to substantiate allegations of voter fraud.)

3) Don’t leave any doubt about the willingness of security forces to defend the regime. In Ukraine, despite a great deal of speculation about what the security forces would do (see here and here for varying accounts of how this played out), the security forces ultimately stayed on the sidelines, and allowed the Orange Revolution to proceed in a peaceful manner. In stark contrast, Iranian security forces seem to have quickly gotten involved in combating demonstrators, as well as in detaining members of the opposition. (See, for example, here, here, and here.)

4) Technology--especially social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, but also more basic technology such as text messaging--is a friend of opposition forces attempting to combat electoral fraud, so do what you can to minimize its impact. One of the lessons from the Orange Revolution was how valuable text messaging could be as an organizing tool. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the early stories out of Iran was about how text messaging services (as well as Facebook) had been shut down, with Foreign Policy reporting that “the person coordinating the blackout, Iranians report, is the son of the Supreme Leader, Mojtaba Khamenei.” Interestingly, CNN is now reporting that Twitter continued to play a role in the protests over the weekend, a topic I have written about here.

One of the exciting things about the Colored Revolutions when they took place was that they seemed to provide a model for opponents of authoritarian regimes to carry forth to other countries. Unfortunately, as events in Belarus, Moldova, and now Iran seem to be demonstrating, it is not only the opponents of authoritarian regimes that may have learned from these events.

Joshua A. Tucker, an Associate Professor of Politics at NYU, is a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a co-author of the political science and policy blog The Monkey Cage.

By Joshua A. Tucker