Seyed Mohammad Hosseini makes for an unlikely revolutionary. The last time he was in Iran was in 2011. He was a minor celebrity, as the host of “Simorgh,” a zany game show on which he would ask contestants to perform silly stunts for prizes.
Today he lives in America and urges Iranians to burn mosques and deface police stations. (Imagine an exiled Joe Rogan forming a new Weather Underground.) Since March of last year, Hosseini has been broadcasting messages to the people of Iran on Telegram, Instagram and other social media platforms urging them to #restartIran, a hashtag and the name of a movement he is now hoping will earn the support of the U.S. government.
“We started with a color protest,” he told me. “We told people to spray colors on the walls of buildings that belonged to the Basij.” (The Basij is the state militia that was deployed to terrorize protesters and keep order during past uprisings.) After this, Hosseini said they moved on to urging Iranians to throw rocks at the windows of government buildings. “Then we said there should be a fire protest,” he said. “They should burn down government mosques and police stations.”
Hosseini is by no means a leader of the current protests in Iran. The demonstrations do not appear connected to his campaign. But he is an important element of the unrest. There is an undercurrent of violence to the uprising this time around that was missing from the protests of 2009, after a stolen presidential election. It’s one of the reasons Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has called for those damaging property to be prosecuted.
Potkin Azarmehr, an Iranian broadcaster based in London, told me he has counted at least 20 videos of property damage using the #restartIran hashtag since the fall: “I am not saying the protests have anything to do with Restart. ... They are only a small part of this. But 20 incidents in three months are not isolated. It shows that something as ridiculous as this campaign is getting a reaction and that Iranians are losing their fear.”
Hosseini’s campaign has also worried Telegram, the low-bandwidth messaging app used by millions of Iranians. The government has just taken this app offline. Telegram banned Hosseini’s first account, “showman1,” in October. He has since migrated to mirror accounts on Telegram. In an Oct. 29, 2017, post, Telegram founder Pavel Durov wrote that Hosseini’s account was an example of a “line one shouldn’t cross.”
It’s understandable why some Iranians and their allies in the West may want to get behind Hosseini’s #restartIran movement. The Iranian regime deploys violence against students, activists, minorities, labor leaders and anyone else who challenges their country’s clerical fascists. Why shouldn’t the resistance treat the regime in kind? But at this stage, it would be a strategic error.
The state has many more guns than the people do. The best odds for the uprising come through nonviolent civil disobedience. The goal for Iran’s demonstrators should be to build as wide a coalition as possible. If regular people feel threatened by revolutionaries, they will not feel safe enough to join the opposition to the dictator. The opposition must create a space where regular police officers feel empowered and safe enough to disobey if ordered to disperse crowds and arrest activists.
Nonviolent resistance has a far better track record in bringing down tyrants in the modern world. It’s true that massive state-to-state wars ended regimes in Nazi Germany and fascist Japan. But Iranians today are not asking to be invaded. A good model for Iran is the uprising that unseated Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia or Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia. These campaigns succeeded because the leader’s henchmen, in the end, would not shed blood to keep the boss in power.
Hosseini is not impressed by these arguments. He told me Iranians want revolution by any means possible. His next goal is to get an audience with President Donald Trump. “I like Trump,” he said. “He was a reality television star. I am a reality television star. We are on the same page.”
Eli Lake is a columnist for Bloomberg View.