As the protests in Iran continue and reports of violence in the streets proliferate, we started to wonder what could make members of the Basij and other paramilitary groups abandon their ties to the regime and back the opposition. So, we called founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Peter Ackerman, to see if he had any advice. First, he stressed just how important it is to flip the troops: "If loyalty shifts don't occur, ultimately the movement will sort of dissipate and vanish. With these shifts, the movement's progress will accelerate and it will become an even more potent force than it is currently." Then he got into specifics:
Use the clerics. "What you need to do to create the flip in the loyalty of the military is to have third parties of moral authority come to them and their families and argue for that change. That's why it is important to consider the significant split among the clerics. This dissenting faction is dispersed throughout Iran so they could be the ones to start the dialogue. They in turn would lay out an alternative version that, with all things being equal, is more attractive than the existing reality."
Make the troops see a better alternative to the present. "Whoever you're dealing with in the military, you're not going to appeal to them just by saying violence isn't nice. You have to say, ‘Look--we're trying to build something that is more attractive to you long term.' We've seen this work before in South Africa, Poland, and Chile."
Hold your fire. "If the dissidents start shooting and throwing rocks, it will be very difficult to get defections from military."
Consider what groups you're working with. "In general terms--the more elite the unit, the more their culture is insulated from everyone else in society, and thus the harder it is to flip. The Basij, as I understand it, would therefore be the last to flip, as they represent some of the more extreme and isolated elements of militarized society; they have been trained to elicit a ferocious response from their actions. The more the people come from a variety of places around the country, and the more they interact with society, the easier it is to flip. So other elements in the police and traditional military would be good candidates to flip, particularly since many of these members have business interests and the police come from all parts of society; they are not as rabid and extreme. However, all security forces are relatively young and thus they have a stake long-term of what the world will look like. Despite other factors that would likely make the Basij the hardest to flip, its organization, as I understand it, is decentralized, which presents an opportunity because you can break off pieces."
Diminish personal risk and instill a group mentality. "There need to be tactics so that the Basij or the police or the military can act in a disloyal manner in a way that doesn't create enormous personal risk. You need to reduce the risk in the minds of each individual member of the military that they can express themselves without getting themselves killed. That comes from two things: One, collective action, where others in their group act together and to let them know they are part of a collective mutiny; in effect, so they can't be singled out. The other is to take action that is not overtly disobedient. So, for example, if the Basij are given orders to go to a certain place to repress a certain strike, they could use less than 100 percent effort. The act of that and the communication that they are expending less than 100 percent effort reaches others, but it does not make it so clear to the people at the top. And if orders aren't fully obeyed, the legitimacy of the Iranian theocracy is called into question."