Iran has come to a test of strength between the regime and the people. At this point, the outcome is uncertain. All sorts of unquantifiable factors like the character and will of leaders are in play, as well as unforeseeable interventions, for instance from the military or the Revolutionary Guards, plain accident, perhaps an atrocity. And not least, what President Obama says, in the event that he stops sitting on the fence.
What’s been happening is a textbook lesson in politics. The mullahs had put in place an ideological regime. This meant that they were able to run the country only so long as they remained united. Rigged elections last June revealed that the mullahs were fighting for power among themselves and would go to any lengths to win. Under their turbans and robes, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and those who do the dirty work for him were evidently careerists and not the devout Muslims they claimed to be. Those who were cheated in that election also wore robes and turbans, but the blatant openness of the cheating created exactly the sort of factionalism that destroyed the Soviet Union and is fatal to any ideological regime.
Hundreds of thousands of people are now out on the streets. On the face of it, the protesters and the regime are unevenly matched. The regime controls the Basij, the paramilitary force that is above the law. The choice facing the regime is how much violence to exert. This is the key to the future. Too little violence, and the protesters are likely to feel encouraged to make more demands. People are already taking to imaginative peaceful protests on the widest scale. Too much violence, and the protesters become enraged, in all likelihood turning violent themselves. The shooting of Nada Sultan and others, including the nephew of one of the opposition mullahs, is the kind of brutality for which an ideological regime has to pay a high price. The arrest of large numbers of demonstrators is always a standing provocation. Members of the Basij have been attacked and stripped of their uniforms, weapons, and motorcycles. There are reports of policemen refusing to fire on the crowd, taking off their helmets and going home.
Regime change is in the air, and a consummation devoutly to be wished, for it might spare the world the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of power-maniacs ready to use them for ideologically driven mass murder and geopolitical extortion. It is clear that the ideology of the Islamic Republic is over and done with. That fact should be acknowledged. We owe that much already to the people out on the streets.