Iran: Regime Intentions Revealed - What's Next?

It is time to step back, take a deep breath and evaluate. The great unknown in the lead-up to the Iranian presidential election was the regime's willingness -- in effect that of the Supreme Leader -- to allow dissenting voices within Iran to be heard. That question has clearly been answered. The Supreme Leader and his supporters are unwilling to brook any challenge, in any fashion, to their hold on power. While initially stumbling badly when faced with the unexpectedly strong reaction from a significant segment of the Iranian people, the regime has since regrouped, regained its footing, and is now on the offensive.

But, the story is by no means over. It is still being written -- although where it will end is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that the Islamic Republic may never be the same. Three major fault lines have formed; one internationally and two domestically.

First, the Islamic Republic has been embarrassed and discredited, thus setting back the regime's hard fought effort to court the respect of the international community. In an effort to justify the recent crackdown, the government has accused foreign elements of having a hand in the post-election protests -- charges that ring patently false to any objective onlooker. Though repairable, it likely will take time and considerable effort for the regime to regain what international standing it previously held.

Second, continued popular defiance of the Supreme Leader and the regime's security forces indicates a loss of faith among many in both the former's vision for the country's future and that of the entire leadership's willingness to work for the overall benefit of the country (rather than for a small clique of supporters and hangers-on). This is being played out in the streets, and documented in a very modern -- and increasingly sophisticated -- media battle in which the regime's almost frantic attempts to control the flow of information to the outside world reminds one of a desperate and futile game of "whack a mole." While presenting a real challenge to the status quo, barring a major miscalculation, the regime's security forces are likely to prove equal to the task of eventually reestablishing full control.

Rather, it is the other, and wholly unexpected, domestic fault line that has the potential to be far more devastating in its long term impact: an apparent loss of powerful regime insiders' confidence in the Supreme Leader's ability to preserve what they had all built together. The Supreme Leader has, at least in their eyes it seems, compromised his position as leader of the Iranian nation and, perhaps, the legitimacy of the office of the Velayat-e faqih itself, thus threatening the viability of the entire system.

Realizing it had badly mishandled the election, the regime tried but failed to maintain a consistent message, one moment calling for a review of complaints of electoral fraud, offering to conduct partial recounts and/or urging reconciliation, and the next threatening harsh retribution. This was done primarily in an attempt to split the opposition leadership from their supporters in the street. While partially successful in isolating those engaged in alleged violent activities, it failed to address the majority of those demonstrating peacefully for change. Lately, the government has focused more on reaching out to those like Mousavi and Rafsanjani in an attempt to repair the damage and return to the status quo. The opposition smells blood, however, and so far shows no signs of deferring to traditional higher authority or backing down. At the same time, wishing to avoid further bloodshed (perhaps including their own), opposition leaders have opted to channel their efforts into legal activities. This is manifesting itself in a manner and extent never before seen -- a political challenge to the regime, legally and from within, through calls for the formation of a recognized opposition front.

And given the momentum this effort is generating, it appears that the insider's insider, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is among those who supports this effort, perhaps not surprising after being reminded that even he is vulnerable to being targeted by hardliners (recall the temporary detention of his children) -- a very rude awakening indeed. His message at yesterday's Friday prayers, in which he failed to side fully and explicitly with the leadership, further reveals his concern over recent events and his intention to remain a force behind, and perhaps within, the opposition camp.

Idealists might consider that opposition leaders truly believe the time has come for change. Cynics, on the other hand, would make the case that they merely wish to preserve their wealth and privileged positions. Either way, the challenge to the Islamic Republic as we know it is real. The regime is already reacting by stressing that permits are required for the formation of any such political "front" -- a sure sign of concern. Let the games begin! It will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

As for "what's next" in terms of engagement with the U.S., as I noted in my last posting, the Iranian leadership needs to consider the risks versus gains of such a move -- both of which are considerable. The situation is far more complicated due to recent events, but the overall stakes remain the same. And given the changed landscape they are facing, deciding not to decide may no longer be an option.

As the regime focuses not only on reestablishing full control on the streets, but also addressing this growing and unprecedented political challenge, it is unlikely that we will see much movement out of Tehran in the near term. In the end, one of the big questions is whether the fractures within the Islamic Republic are significant enough to drive the Supreme Leader and his supporters towards engagement in an attempt to control the tempo of such an explosive issue, or if they will instead reject President Obama's extended hand, hunker down, and try to wait us out. This, however, poses its own risks by ceding the field on such a key issue to the opposition, thereby offering them a powerful platform upon which to build.