In what has become a yearly ritual, the UN convenes for its opening session each fall, not only inviting world leaders to address the assembly, but also inviting protests as they also create an opportunity for some of the world’s worst leaders to speak their own propaganda from the UN podium. A frequent presence in recent years has been Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seems to relish the opportunity to come to New York and make absurd claims like there are no gay people in Iran. Ahmadinejad’s offenses, however, are far worse than mere ignorance or incitement. His commitment to building a nuclear weapons program, supplying arms to terrorist groups, and brutally suppressing his own people have led to increasing rounds of US and international sanctions on his regime.
For these, and many other reasons, those rallies outside the UN have become a feature of Ahmadinejad’s visits to the US. But interest and impact have been waning. Seeing these rallies attract fewer attendees and even less press, the New York Jewish Community Relations Council decided to act and formed a new coalition called Iran 180.
The goal of Iran 180 is to inspire Iran activism around the country. At a time when organizing is all online and people would rather sign a Facebook petition than join a rally, how can we bring the same fervor that fueled the rallies and activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry to the cause of Iran?
The formers of Iran 180 began by building a broader coalition. Coalition building is the central component of a successful campaign. Instead of focusing on just the Iranian threat to Israel or US strategic interests, Iran 180 combined the nuclear threat with Iran’s human rights violations, demanding a “180” – a complete turnaround – by Iran on these issues. A petition on basic human rights for women, minorities, unions, media, journalists, political opposition, juveniles, and more, helped generate interest from some non-traditional allies such as the NAACP and 100 Hispanic Women. Their slogan, “Human rights, not nuclear rights,” said it all.
Once a broad coalition was formed, Iran 180 had three central components to building name recognition: online/social media, a press conference, and a street event. Organizing on Facebook is one of the easiest ways to attract early supporters. Visitors to Iran 180’s Facebook page were invited to “like” it to let their friends know about it as well as sign an e-declaration. Letting supporters leave their own messages and comments built and promoted more participation. Some of the best work came in compiling relevant but under-reported articles and stories and sharing them on Twitter.
A social media strategy, however, can only go so far. The Iran 180 press conference was an opportunity to bring that online enthusiasm offline, and, importantly, to attract press. It was a chance to share the e-declaration, attract more signatures, and bring press attention with the attendance of national, state, and local officials, including Senator Gillibrand. A successful event will have a follow through component, and after speaking to the Iran 180 press conference, Senator Gillibrand introduced legislation on Iran.
But as important as the message of Iran 180 is, that was not enough to generate the desired attention. Visuals are key. Thus was born the giant 10 foot Ahmadinejad puppet. The popularity and presence of this puppet made it a useful tool for Iran 180, creating more opportunities to spread their message. The press had a catchy photograph and Iran 180 had a hook. The puppet became a signature of Iran 180 events, landing on the front page of the New York Times, and opening up a realm of possibilities for new uses. At one event, a mock trial was held where Ahmadinejad’s crimes were read to the puppet. The puppet became a ubiquitous feature, but more importantly, it was able to channel the somewhat goofy into the serious. When The Daily Show featured the puppet on a panel, it helped to elevate the issue of Iran to a national, not only Jewish community, level. The popularity of Iran 180, and the puppet, was followed up by a series of videos featuring messages of hope from Members of Congress to the Iranian people.
Iran 180’s success has come not from any one focus, but from their breadth. Its core is a coalition of Jewish and non-Jewish groups. A weekly newsletter and their twitter feed cull important articles on Iran’s human rights violations to foster discussions. They encourage engagement on a virtual level through means like comments and conversations on Facebook and the e-declaration. Before UN votes on Iran, supporters can cast their vote online and share those with the missions of countries voting with Iran. And, crucially, they take advantage of every opportunity. The versatility of the Ahmadinejad puppet offers opportunities to highlight Iran’s human rights violations at events not focused on just Iran, like events for women’s rights or International Human Rights Day. Because of the advocacy and work of Iran 180, conversations on Iran continue in a range of environments, not only Jewish communities.
To learn more about Iran 180 and sign their e-declaration, visit www.Iran180.org.