The Ayatollahs’ Tipping Point

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – Once the crowds were in the streets in Tehran, one could, if one knew the script, begin the countdown: if today there are mass protests, tomorrow there will be threats of retaliation in the name of “national security.” By day three, we will see journalists imprisoned and media shut down; day four, bloody reprisals against protesters by secret police; day five, arrests of key opposition figures. Sure enough, right on schedule, each of those steps was set in motion in Iran, within the space of a week.

These same ten steps occurred in Thailand in 2006 – in ten days, and in seven days in Myanmar a year later. The script is so well known by now among the world’s would-be dictators that it can take less than a week to lock down a country.

None of this should surprise anyone anymore. We should understand that this time-tested script for establishing or enforcing a dictatorship exists – but so does a counter-strategy for opening up a closed society. When a would-be dictator – anywhere, any time, on the right or the left – wants to close an open society or initiate a crackdown against a democracy movement, he follows ten classic steps: invoke a threat, create secret prisons, develop a paramilitary force, establish a surveillance apparatus, arbitrarily detain citizens, infiltrate citizen groups, target key individuals, go after journalists, call criticism “treason,” and subvert the rule of law.

Once these steps are put in place, it is extremely difficult for a pro-democracy movement to survive – but not impossible if counter-pressure is applied correctly. History shows again and again – throughout the modern era and around the world – that people do indeed have some powerful tools to reestablish an open society if they were willing to use them.