One Thing's Clear: Iran's Regime Badly Shaken

Washington Matters

One Thing's Clear: Iran's Regime Badly Shaken

Whatever the final outcome of Iran's disputed election, one thing is certain: The regime is seriously shaken, and the experience of the past week will change it irrevocably. Demonstrators aren't trying to overturn the regime, but they are furious that their one means of expressing dissent -- the vote -- appears to have been tampered with.

The government has two basic options for responding to protestors. The first would be to crush it with overwhelming force, say on the level of China's response to the Tienanmen Square demonstrators in 1989. But such an approach is very risky, as the mullahs know full well. It was, after all, just such a harsh crackdown on anti-Shah demonstrators in 1978 that touched off the Islamic Revolution. Up until now, the regime has been wielding its Basij militia against demonstrators, raiding universities, making arrests and generally clamping down on communications. That has done little to discourage the opposition.

The alternative would be for the clerical authorities to withdraw their early support for Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's declared victory. That will be hard, though, because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei came out in support of the incumbent president immediately after his victory was announced. Holding a full recount, let alone a fresh contest, would damage his aura of infallibility, and that would encourage many to push the mullahs for greater personal freedoms.

Still some softening of support for Ahmedinejad is the more likely outcome. Above all, Khamenei is a survivor. If he sees it in the interests of the regime to sacrifice the hard-line president, Ahmedinejad will soon be gone. Even if he manages to retain his office, Ahmedinejad is likely to have far less power in his second term than in his first. Some of his allies in opposing any compromise with the West will be handed their walking papers.


Whatever happens, it won't change Tehran's stance on the nuclear weapons issue. Ahmedinejad's chief opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, shares the view that Iran has a right to nuclear power. For most Iranians, it's a point of national pride. In any case, Khamenei, not Iran's president, has the final word on defense matters. What it will affect is the image and tone Iran presents to the outside world. That by itself makes a big difference in how the Obama administration will engage Tehran in future negotiations. There's little point to opening such a dialogue, and even less chance of success, before President Obama knows who he'll be dealing with.

Until then, all Obama can really do is what he is doing now. He can express concerns about the fairness of the outcome of the election. He can decry the regime's use of force against its own people.  What he can't do is to
openly side with Mousavi and the opposition. Such outside support would only fuel a nationalist backlash, letting the regime paint the opposition as tools of Washington. Nothing would be more certain to restore
Ahmedinejad's political fortunes.