People across the world, and especially across the Middle East, were surprised and inspired when millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest the disputed results of that nation’s June 12 presidential election. Subsequently, the entire world has been outraged by the brutality of the current regime’s response to the peaceful protests. Something close to martial law now seems to exist in Iran.

Few informed observers had illusions about the authoritarian nature of Iran’s theocratic state, where candidates for office must first be approved by religious authorities. How firm a grip the mullahs in Tehran have on a nation that is divided by ethnicity and class, and whose economy is badly mismanaged, remains to be seen. Some think the crisis is the beginning of the end for the thirty-year-old Islamic Republic. Skeptics warn that even those political and religious leaders who now find themselves in opposition are establishment figures, and staunch defenders of Iran’s “Islamic Revolution.” At the moment, the monopoly on violence remains in the hands of the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has declared the results of the election, which returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, to be valid. Khamenei has demanded an end to protests, and accuses those who object of treason. Predictably, the victims of state-sanctioned violence are now being blamed for their own deaths.

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have the loyalty of the regime’s pervasive security apparatus and the Revolutionary Guard, as well as the paramilitary groups that figured so largely in the violence against those protesting the election results. It is the repressive actions of these groups that have driven the protest movement off the streets, at least for the immediate future. Hopes that Iran might follow in the steps of the “Velvet Revolutions” of Eastern Europe have evaporated.

Yet Iran’s religious and political elites appear to be divided. Former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi, the runner-up in the election, has become the unexpected leader of a popular opposition movement, a movement in which women have played a prominent, even heroic role. Mousavi’s determination to question the election results is supported by a number of influential political and religious figures, including most recently a powerful group of “grand ayatollahs” in the sacred city of Qum. This refusal to accept the decision of the supreme leader regarding the election is unprecedented. It appears that whatever happens in the short run, the long-term stability of the regime is now in doubt. Whether change will come with a minimum of further violence or through some climactic upheaval is the question.

President Barack Obama has been strongly criticized by some, especially Republicans and neoconservative commentators, for his careful and deliberate response to events in Iran. America should be unambiguously on the side of the Iranian opposition, these critics charge. Obama was judicious in his initial reaction to the disputed election, but then spoke out forcefully against the violent suppression of the protests. He has continued to insist, however, that it would not help the cause of the Iranian opposition if the United States was seen to be taking sides in an internal political conflict. American meddling in Iran has usually brought about unhappy results. Ambassador Nicholas Burns, who was in charge of the U.S. State Department’s policy toward Iran during the George W. Bush administration, agrees. “On the U.S. role,” Burns has said, “I believe that President Obama has handled this crisis superbly.... The fact that President Obama would be serious, measured, and thoughtful is reassuring.”

Uppermost on Obama’s agenda, of course, is the ongoing international effort to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. How the current turmoil will affect this issue is also unclear. Some argue that a vulnerable and discredited regime, one that is now preoccupied with internal political threats, will be more likely to seek accommodation with the larger international community. Others fear that should Khamenei and Ahmadinejad succeed, the situation will become more perilous for all concerned. The administration is right to demand an end to the violence and to support the right of Iranians to peaceful protest, but it has also been right to take a wait-and-see approach to the internal political struggle. It must not be forgotten that even the leaders of the opposition strongly endorse Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The United States’ ability to influence events in Iran is limited. But while the Obama administration should move cautiously, it is certainly appropriate for other Americans—including churches and human-rights groups—to seek ways to assist those Iranians who long for the freedom and dignity the Islamic Revolution promised but failed to deliver.      July 7, 2009

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Published in the 2009-07-17 issue: View Contents
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