What’s the Best Way to “Foment Unrest” in a Foreign Country?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 5 2012 3:18 PM

What’s the Best Way To Foment Unrest in a Foreign Country?

A how-to guide for the aspiring fomentor.

Afghan protesters shout anti-U.S. slogans during a demonstration
Afghan protesters shout anti-U.S. slogans during a demonstration

Photograph by Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images.

Shortly after the burning of Qurans at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan became public in February, Iranian agents attempted to “instigate violent protests” inside the country, according to a story published Wednesday by the New York Times. Iran is often accused of instigating, fomenting, or stirring up violence and anti-Americanism in other countries. How, exactly, does a government go about fomenting violence?

With a mixture of videotapes, audio cassettes, and explosives. When U.S. missiles kill Afghan civilians, or U.S. forces commit an affront to Islam, Iran seeks to broadcast the news among the local population. Agents quickly generate and disseminate pieces of audio and video propaganda decrying the indignity and urging civilians to rise up against American forces. Some of these go beyond mere exhortations to violence. In Iraq, U.S. agents claim to have intercepted Iranian-produced tapes that included directions to Iranian-stocked weapons caches and instructions on how to build explosively formed projectiles capable of penetrating U.S. armored vehicles. The tapes are also said to provide detailed descriptions of routes frequented by U.S. troops.

The government in Tehran, for its part, denies meddling in Afghanistan or other countries. And the White House says it makes no effort to foment rebellion in Iran, although the United States does acknowledge broadcasting its own take on world and Iranian news into the country via Voice of America radio and television. The United States also admits to providing financial support to Iranian opposition groups through a government-funded, private corporation called the National Endowment for Democracy. Officially, those grants do not support violent uprisings or even the peaceful overthrow of the Iranian government.

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The United States does seem to have used proxies to undermine the Iranian government, however. In a 2009 article in Foreign Policy Journal, Jeremy R. Hammond compiled a laundry list of claims about U.S. covert operations in the Islamic Republic. For example, a government consultant told journalist Seymour Hersh in 2006 that U.S. forces were arming and funding ethnic minority militias to encourage tension and destabilize the regime. Former U.N. weapons inspector and Bush administration critic Scott Ritter wrote in 2008 that the CIA was supporting an Iranian opposition group called the Mujahadeen-e Khalk that has conducted a series of bombings in the country. (The same group happens to be on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations—one of the many contradictions that exist in the world of covert operations.) Ritter stopped just short of accusing the CIA of directly aiding the attacks, but said that the agency provides “material support” to the group.

In the past, the U.S. government has tried to foment rebellions abroad by promising financial or military support, or offering tactical advice to local malcontents. In 1956, an American colonel speaking on Radio Free Europe assured Hungarians that the U.S. military would support a rebellion, and a subsequent program offered tips on anti-tank tactics. The CIA-initiated Radio Swan, which broadcast from an island near Cuba beginning in 1960, mixed anti-Castro speeches, exhortations to defect from the military, and pop music. The station also broadcast coded messages to fighters in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1980, the CIA arranged for a transmitter to broadcast anti-Khomeini messages into Iran.

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Explainer thanks Raymond Tanter of the University of Michigan.

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