By Rostam Assadi, ’15
If one wished to hold a mantra as to understand the public response of Russia and Iran towards the Colored Revolutions, it may be summed up by this Russian commentator: “the day before yesterday: Belgrade. Yesterday: Tbilisi. Today: Kiev. Tomorrow: Moscow.” Indeed, the themes encompassing the discourse of Iranian and Russian political elites reflects a sense of uncertainty, fear, and resentment towards their perception of Western intervention. But the story certainly does not end there. Through precision and attention to context and meaning, one may observe important distinctions between the Iranian response and the Russian response. Of course, understanding ‘intention’ and ‘effect’ solely through political rhetoric itself is a risky business. The multidimensional justifications of this endeavor may confound any supposedly valid theory purporting to draw a causal relationship between rhetoric and action. Nonetheless, this does not imply that a well-crafted interpretation may not provide useful results, when analyzing the overarching discourse displayed by Iran and Russia.
From a comparative perspective, this paper aims to describe and unravel the meaning of the ongoing rhetoric of the Russian and Iranian political elites in regards to the Coloured Revolutions. In conjunction to the aforementioned goals, I aim to take into account rhetoric that is aptly characterized by temporal and politically contextual indicators. In other words, the character of discourse is not only affected by the Colored Revolutions themselves, but also by political and social developments that draw a particular framing. To understand this framing, I will employ both a comparative and contextual model of discourse so to appropriately describe Iran and Russia’s responses towards the Colored Revolutions.
This analysis will be preceded by a brief recount of the pitfalls and prospects of discourse analysis as a practice. Certainly, it is imperative to understand the limitations of this mode of analysis so one may draw valid conclusions from the rhetoric at hand. Afterwards, I will provide a brief background on the rhetorical use of the ‘Colored Revolution’ understood by this paper.
Hence my first aim will be to analyze the similarities between Iranian rhetoric and Russian rhetoric. I will argue that the commonalities between the rhetoric of Iranian elites as well as of Russian elites are due to a unified perception of the ‘Western threat.’ Both camps respond in a manner that frames their rhetoric as representing a fear of spillover primarily induced by Western intervention and infiltration.
My second aim shall be analyze the differences. In the case of Iran, I will show how the context of the Green Movement frames rhetoric referencing the Colored Revolutions. The statements stemming from Iranian political elites purport to blame perceived ‘engineers’ of these ‘fabricated’ Colored Revolutions for the internal developments resulting from the botched election in 2008. In the case of Russia, I aim to show that the Russian contingent used rhetoric to draw nationalist support to counter the supposed western threat as aimed towards specific subjects, such as George Soros.
2: Discourse Analysis: Methodology and Meaning
As with any school of methodology, one must first take into account its limitations to understand its potentials. Perhaps the most profound restriction upon discourse analysis is the lack of capacity to justify any causal relationships between ‘action’ and ‘words.’ For example, one of the major themes of this paper encompasses the unified ‘threat perception’ expressed in the rhetoric of both Russia and Iran. As Günes Murat Tezcür aptly notes, “[t]he problem is that it is empirically difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate if threat perception of the ruling elite was genuinely aggravated.” I take ‘genuine aggravation’ to mean some institution of defensive or offensive policy that is directly caused by this expression of threat perception.
This concern is well founded for a variety of reasons. Any sort of claim in which one intends to draw a causal relationship between rhetoric and policy implementation would find a ‘logically barren area.’ More technically, the amount of logical inferences required to deduce the relationship between discourse and policy would be not only grand, but also contestable when forced to present empirical evidence for the claim. A subsequent fault is certainly due to the difficulty of explaining the internal mechanism of a regime and the state’s desire to “present a rationally beneficial popular perception of itself.” This is pertinent, as much of this paper covers rhetoric that is of the ‘reactionary’ sort, or both ‘reactionary’ as well as ‘directive’ in nature.
Therefore, drawing any claims about the effect of rhetoric upon policy is out of the question. Those concerns lie with empirical analysis of both quantitative and qualitative nature. This by no means implies that analyzing discourse is ‘speculative.’ Beyond the series of restrictions upon the capacities of discourse analysis, one may nonetheless draw fruitful conclusions from a contextual model of discourse, as well as a comparative model of discourse.
In regards to analysis utilizing common themes in rhetoric, the primary benefit stems from the attempt to draw a conclusion of unity or disagreement in perception. The way to understand this is through a basic example of ‘object representation.’ For example, assume there are two people, John and Jim. John observes an apple from one perspective, say from the top, and Jim sees the apple from a lateral perspective. Although John’s view of the apple is different, insofar as the shape, surface reflectance properties, and hue differ from Jim’s, John and Jim’s collective explanation provides a series of predicates to describe the apple. Through understanding the commonalities and differences in regards to similar predicate description, one may compare and contrast John and Jim’s rhetoric and draw meaningful conclusions about their ‘perspectives.’
To further this example, in the case of understanding John and Jim, one would also go about describing their environment as well. One could describe the lighting, the levelness of the floor, and so forth. Take this model as way to understand how to go about conducting discourse analysis—it is through understanding commonalities and differences in rhetoric, as well as through description of the context that provides fruitful conclusions.
3: The Colored Revolutions: A Brief Primer
Throughout the analysis of this paper, references to the Colored Revolutions, as they are generally understood, and specific references to certain movements are employed. This is mainly because of the ambiguity employed by the sources of the quotes. That said, the majority of specific revolutions referenced in this paper are the Orange Revolution (Ukraine), Tulip Revolution (Kyrgyzstan), Rose Revolution (Georgia), and the Velvet Revolution (Czechoslovakia). In the overarching sense, scholarly consensus has pointed to the Colored Revolutions as referencing these four movements.
At least by standards of western political scholarship, most of these revolutions are viewed as legitimate—although there is some contest from certain camps. As this paper does not address the ‘actual’ legitimacy of these movements, I will not address that debate in this paper. Holding this debate constant, the Colored Revolutions are interpreted as a series of movements that happened in relative succession, invigorated by internal discontent, and carried about by the respective states’ populations.
This rough definition serves as notation for reference only in regards to the responses from Iranian and Russian political elites, as to draw a normatively uniform interpretation. In other words, the posturing and ‘threat perceptions’ that are understood through the rhetoric of Iran and Russia should be interpreted in a similar manner, rather than taking into account a contested normative understanding of whether or not the revolutions are ‘actually’ legitimate.
4: A Comparison: Russia and Iran
With the notion of the Colored Revolutions established, one may go about understanding the rhetoric of Iran and Russia towards these monumental movements. First, a common theme found between Iran and Russia was the particular framing of the revolutions as ‘Western induced.’ In a speech given by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during the height of various street protests related to the Iranian Green Movement, he made an explicit claim about the “infiltration of Zionists” as the cause of the prior Colored revolutions. In the statement, Khamenei blamed ‘Zionists’ in direct contact with, or purely composed of, “Western contingents.” Given the context of the Green Revolution, it is not unreasonable to interpret his rhetoric as reflecting the regime’s view that the Green Movement is either illegitimate, or induced by ‘outside forces.’ Thus in regards to the Colored Revolution, his perception dictated that:
… [Western contingents] began street protests and vandalism, they set fire to public property, they made shops and businesses insecure, and they are trying to rob the people of their security. This has nothing to do with the people and their preferred candidates. This kind of behavior stems from the ill-wishers, mercenaries and elements working for western and Zionist secret services.
Two years prior, during March of 2007, a pro-government organization known as the Nashi Youth began to respond to the Orange Revolution. Widely viewed as an organization strongly supported by the Kremlin, the Nashi distributed leaflets with anti-Western sentiments. As Finkel and Burdny describe, “the leaflets depicted the US as a ‘voracious predator’, eager to take advantage of an ‘Orange’ coup…” Months later, the Nashi produced another set of leaflets prior to the Duma election claiming that the revolutions were “cases of Western intervention in the post-communist electoral process.”
Contextually, both these cases occurred in temporal proximity to heated elections—during the “rigged” elections in the summer of 2009 for the case of Iran, and the Moscow City Duma elections during 2007 for Russia. So one may deduct that for both the governing regimes the context provided a ‘high stakes’ environment, with a general frame expressing ‘anti-Western’ sentiment. The frame in this case dictated an environment that held the potential for some significant power shift to occur in the stake-holding positions. In other words, fear of a regime change or grave danger to the established regime seemed evident.
A couple years prior, during the Rose Revolution of Georgia, the sources supposedly associated with the Russian government advertised the standoff as “the attempt for the dictatorial and puppet regime of [President] Saakashvili to cajole his masters in the United States.” Furthermore, Russian analysts raved of the potential for these supposedly ‘Western-fueled’ movements to spill-over to not only Russia, but to other post-communist states. One noted:
Establishing contacts with various international foundations and securing the funding happens according to the familiar scenario. One only has to remember how active the Soros Open Society Foundation is on former Soviet territory. Also take for example the U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles, who managed to do his job both in Belgrade and in Georgia. Further down the line, the streets get engaged in the regime change process, encouraged by business-persons and oligarchs dissatisfied with incumbent regimes.
Indeed, when surveying rhetoric expressed by Russian governmental figures, as well as affiliates, the blame resides solely on Western-themed ‘oligarchs’ and direct associates of the “Western agenda.” Serg Markov, another commentator, expressed concern that:
the ‘orange revolution’ in Moldova is about 80 percent ready … Russia cannot afford to allow defeat in the battle for Ukraine. Besides everything else, defeat would mean velvet revolutions in the next two years, now following the Kiev variant, in Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and possibly Armenia.
Not only are there repeated concerns expressed about the nature of the movements spilling over to other regimes, but also the concerns further encompass direct references to ‘Western’ business moguls such as George Soros and other ‘capitalist subsidiaries.’ Indeed, many esteemed Russian commentators view the Colored Revolutions as not only committed by Western agents, but go as far as referencing direct culprits as blameworthy.
On the same note, Khamenei’s discourse on the subject seems to put the blame on George Soros as well. Although never referenced by name, Khamenei makes it clear that “[w]hen a political transformation took place in Georgia, which led to a transfer of power, a Jewish American capitalist – who is famous, but I do not want to mention his name – announced that he had spent ten million dollars in Georgia in order to give rise to a political upheaval.” Thus with the establishment of Soros as a particular example of an enemy against both Iran and Russia, the two regimes seem to take a direct posture against their perceived ‘political enemy.’
In this further regard, the supposed Western influence and ‘political achievement’ of Soros goes as far as a commitment of a “Western Stalingrad” by Gleb Pavlovsky’s view. Similarly, another commentator stated that the Orange Revolution: “can be seen as a planned strike against Russia aimed at creating ongoing instability on its southern borders. If this is pulled off, Russia will come up against a whole range of very complex problems.” The commentator even goes as far as to outline the financial, economic, political, and demographic ramifications, if the infiltration were to occur.
Iranian political elites reflect similar rhetoric in this manner, one government spokesperson denounced political groups that “want to prepare the ground for enemy’s infiltration and pave the way for a velvet revolution.” The Islamic regime even went as far as broadcasting a confession of three detained Iranian citizens, all students at Columbia University at the time. This confession was widely believed as fabricated by political scholars and Green Revolution activists. Subsequently one governmental hardliner released a statement accusing them of being a “Zionist spy,” and once again encouraging a “velvet coup.”
Some of the rhetoric rooted from the Iranian Regime ranged from the accusatory, to perhaps outright illogical. The same hardliner considered a “spokesperson for the Supreme Leader” wrote accusatory statements in the conservative newspaper Kayhan aimed towards exposing a Western coup. Hossein Shariatmadari, the managing editor, wrote that due to the students’ connection to Columbia University, in logical conjunction with a recent meeting where the President of Columbia University insulted then President Mahmood Ahmedinejad, the meeting had ended in dispute because “[Ahmedinejad] had already exposed Columbia University’s role in orchestrating a velvet coup in Iran.” A short period after this article was published, the Interior Minister released a statement asserting, “[t]he Iranian nation would not be deceived by the proponents of velvet revolutions.”
So it is clear from these cases that the similarities between the responses from the Iranian and Russian camps are vast and conclusive. Although more of the rhetoric from Iranian elites seem to encompass the notion of a ‘military threat,’ many Russian commentators seemed to also reflect the same sentiment. Both the Iranian elites and Russian elites seemed to convey a sense that a ‘spillover’ would occur if there were not necessary precautions put into place. Not only this, but there seemed to be a mutually held belief that none of the colored revolutions were legitimate, as a result of ‘undeniable’ Western involvement. This anti-Western sentiment was not only used to delegitimize the movements such as the Velvet, Tulip, and Orange revolutions, but also was claimed as a precautionary measure against the same “spread of western virus.” Hence one may hold with certainty that the threat perceptions of Iran and Russia mirror each other in a variety of ways, and are justified through the same mediums.
When analyzing the differences, I have concluded that the particularities are somewhat indistinct. There are some cases by the Russian camps where ‘ambiguous respondents’ made more zealous, or specified claims. The implications are unclear in this case. When surveying the cases where particular names are mentioned—i.e. George Soros—it seems that the Russian camp holds more discontent; at least more so than the accusatory rhetoric expressed by Iranian political elites. This may imply that the Russian elites viewed Soros as a more legitimate threat. The Iranian rhetoric mirrors a lack of directedness towards Soros’ ‘involvement.’ Thus one may induce that although many mentions of ‘Capitalist influence’ were made by the part of both Iranian and Russian rhetoricians, Russian claims are direct in pointing out Soros as a threat. As a result, fears of him directly funding a political upheaval in Iran seemed of lesser concern for the Iranian elites.
In the case of Iran, another central finding was the lack of rhetoric aimed at the perception of threat to civil society. Perhaps this may be due to the fact that much of the rhetoric was released during a time of internal struggle, contextualized by the Green Revolution; on the other hand, there were some cases where this was not the case. These cases referencing the dangers to civil society were almost exclusively found in a propaganda video, starring animations of US Republican Senator John McCain and academic Gene Sharp. As released by the Iranian government, the video to present the notion of a Western threat to overhaul Iranian society and instill counter-Iranian values in civil society.
References towards the ‘Velvet Revolution’ were also more commonplace in the case of Iran as well. Of course, the cases of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are within closer proximity, therefore geopolitical significance may likely be ruled out. The continued mentions may also come from the notion that the reference was simply a ‘mistake,’ but once again such repeated use of ‘Velvet Revolution’ most likely rule this answer out. After deliberation, I have concluded that either it is the case that there is historical significance of the Velvet Revolution, or the translation from Persian to English may have used ‘velvet’ instead of ‘color’ as a matter of convention; there does not seem to be a clear indicator one way or another.
This rhetorical analysis has yielded a variety of interesting results. As stated in Section 2, the business of discourse is not meant to provide conclusive findings on causal relationships between factors such as threat perception and policy implementation. Nonetheless it is clear that there are substantive conclusions to be drawn in regards to the posturing tendencies of regimes that view certain events as a dire risk towards their retention of power. As both Iran and Russia released a variety of these statements mainly during times of ‘high risk,’ such as elections and protests, one may induce that heightened rhetoric is induced from regimes of anti-Western sentiment most commonly during times when there is a perceived threat to regime stability or retention of power.
In closing, I have described the particularly interesting findings that the Iranian and Russian rhetoric mirror each other in a variety of ways. This paper has shown that the rhetoric of Iran and Russia takes a certain ‘tone’—mainly anti-Western and precautionary. This rhetoric is also understood as a response towards perceived threats of military intervention induced by Western infiltration and involvement in civil society. Returning to the quote, “the day before yesterday: Belgrade. Yesterday: Tbilisi. Today: Kiev. Tomorrow: Moscow,” it is clear that in the case of Iran and Russia, this mantra may rear its head again in the future, if conditions dictate its validity once again.
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