What now? Do the eight days of protest signal the beginning of the long overdue end of the 30-year-old Islamic Republic of Iran, or the start of a sustained, systematic repression? Put another way, is this another Velvet Revolution or Tiananmen 2?
Though it is still impossible to predict, my hunch is that in the short run what is being called the Twitter revolution in Iran is unlikely to prompt the immediate collapse of the regime. With so much money and power at stake, the mullahs who have run the country (into the ground) in the name of God will not easily give up as the exhausted communist regime governing Czechoslovakia did in 1989. But will the Supreme Leader and his apparatchiks prevail, as did China in its infamous suppression of the students and workers who protested in 1989 for more freedom? Again, power in the short run seems unlikely to shift to the Islamic challengers from the hard-line clerics in the most serious power struggle the regime has experienced since the Iranian revolution 30 years ago. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 150,000-strong Revolutionary Guard and 300,000 Basiji vigilantes may well temporarily suppress the uprising with bullets, clubs and tear gas. But in choosing repression, the Islamic theocracy has lost critical legitimacy and become just another of the garden-variety military dictatorships so prevalent in the region.
Plus, the sclerotic regime is unlikely in the long-run to deliver the prosperity with which China rulers placated its rebellious people. Even if the mullahs win this round, the desire for change in Iran seems likely to grow along with the demographic bulge Iran own version of baby-boomers -- the 70 percent of the country that is under 30, many of whom are fed up and want jobs, lower inflation, and yes, more freedom.
The challenge for President Obama is the following: will this titanic power struggle be resolved before Iran acquires nuclear weapons? That, too, seems unlikely, which means Obama may have to choose among the best of several bad policy options.
Here what happened over the weekend and what to look for in the days ahead:
- On Friday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Orwellian titled Supreme Leader, effectively declared war on his own people, by announcing in his Friday sermon, no less, that the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been duly re-elected and that the protests over alleged election rigging should end. (For a summary of key points, click here) Ahmadinejad 11-million vote lead could not have been rigged, he asserted. Those who protested to the contrary were riff-raff, ill-wishers, and spies, especially for Zionism. They would get what they deserved if their protests did not stop, and they would be responsible for the bloodshed. On Monday, the 12-man Guardian Council announced that while there was evidence of extensive fraud in the election, Ahmadinejad was still the victor.
- Iranians ignored the Supreme Leader orders not to march and turned out on the streets in numbers unseen since the '79 revolution. By Sunday, 19 martyrs had been killed (the government says there were only 10) in the hit-and-run battles between green wave protestors and the pro-regime Basiji vigilantes, as the government arrested hundreds, perhaps thousands of others. Writing in the New York Post, Amir Taheri estimated that around 3,000 people had been detained, among them, virtually all the key aides to Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's key challenger, and other opponents, the editors of two of Iran's leading newspapers, 16 officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, (charged with implementing the repression) and dozens of clerics and theology students who are backing the opposition. State TV said that 457 had been arrested in one day.
- Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister and the key challenger, a founder and card-card carrying member of the Islamic theocracy, has now found himself cast in the unlikely role of accidental leader of this uprising, which is now no longer just about an alleged stolen election, but about the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. So far, he seems to have risen to the occasion. Announcing that he was ready for martyrdom, he demanded a new election and called upon his followers to conduct nation-wide strikes if he is arrested. Gary Sick, whose Internet site, Gulf 2000 -- along with Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish -- has provided indispensable updates from Iranian academics, journalists, experts, and Iranians on the front lines of this battle, said Sunday he was convinced that Mousavi was evolving into a true leader of the forces that had threatened to spin out far beyond his control. Noting that Mousavi called for a new type of political life in the country and free expression in all its forms, Sick concluded that Mousavi had issued a truly revolutionary statement.The repression and disdain of the government has brought the opposition to a place they probably never dreamed of going. And no one knows where any of the parties are likely to go next. But for outside observers, he said, it is like standing on the edge of a glacier and feeling the ice begin to crack under your feet.
- By Sunday night, the blood-stained face of Neda, a beautiful young Iranian woman who was allegedly shot by Basiji and died on the streets of Teheran with her philosophy professor hovering helplessly over her was being seen on Web sites throughout the world. Tributes to Iran's symbolic martyr and calls to mourn her have been deluging YouTube.
What should we be watching for in the days ahead?
-- A deepening split within the senior ranks of the clergy. As Ali Ansari wrote in the Guardian on Sunday, the silence of many of Iran's clergy suggests their alienation from the regime that now rules in their names. Ansari reports that Ayatollah Sanei, one of the most senior clerics in Qom who was a close companion of revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruholllah Khomeini, complained that his protest was unlikely to have any impact on Iran's rulers. Even more worrisome to the Supreme Leader, he added, five senior clerics have protested the elections and the violence that has followed. And Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the former heir to Khomeini, who was pushed aside in an earlier political struggle after having criticized the lack of freedom in Iran, has now openly condemned the elections. Neither Ahmadinejad, nor his master's voice, Ayatollah Khamenei, are popular in Qom, notes Professor Ansari, who heads Iranian studies at St. Andrews College. The clerics may bide their time, but their intervention, which may come sooner rather than later -- especially if violence spreads -- could be decisive. The defection of the clergy could spell serious trouble for the Supreme Leader. In theory, notes Iranian analyst Hooshang Amirahmadi, the 86-member Council of Experts, all clerics, can unseat him.
-- Calls for a national strike could be as deadly, if not more so, to the regime than the bloody protests that have outraged Iranians and Iran watchers throughout the world. If the street protests end, this could very well be Mousavi's next step.
In the short-run, brute force is likely to overpower the protests, unless the regime fundamentally miscalculates and outrage spreads. But however this phase of the crisis ends, the Islamic Republic will not be the same. Now that Obama's rhetoric has finally caught up with Iranian reality on the ground and American idealism, his laser-like focus on negotiations with Teheran should factor in the broader struggle for freedom being waged by Iranian whose haunting images fill the Internet and airwaves day after day.