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Bob Dreyfuss | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Opposition Holds Firm in Iran

Let's leave aside, for today, Vice President Biden's incredibly destructive comments on Israel's "sovereign" right to bomb Iran, remarks that are widely being interpreted in the Middle East as a green light from the United States for Israel to launch an attack. If the bungling veep meant what he said, then we're in big trouble. Even if he didn't, it's bound to give fuel to Iran's hardliners in their inane campaign to blame the US, the UK and Israel for Iran's home-grown opposition movement. Thankfully, comments from a White House spokesman and from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs may have undercut Babblin' Joe this time.

In Iran itself, efforts by the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime to silence the opposition clearly aren't working yet. The street protests, brutally suppressed, have quieted. But the political opposition continues to build.

Most important, none of the oppositionists are backing down. Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and former President Khatami have all continued to press their challenge to the regime. According to a reformist newspaper in Iran, Etemad-e-Melli, Mousavi is planning to organize a political party that can carry the movement forward. (There are, in Iran, no real political parties. In the election, although Mousavi ran with the support of the reformist establishment, students, the business class, women, and other constituencies -- including many clerics -- he did not have a political party to support him, with offices in cities and provinces and a staff.)

Mousavi also laid out a detailed challenge to the fraudulent, June 12 presidential election, in a 24-page document issued Saturday. He pointed out that the interior minister, who counted the votes, and the head of the Guardian Council, who certified the bogus result, are both close allies of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad who'd endorsed the president's reelection. He noted that the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard had said they wouldn't accept anyone but Ahmadinejad. And he charged that twenty million extra ballots were printed. Amid charges that he is a traitor and threats to arrest him, Mousavi's latest moves show that he isn't giving up.

Meanwhile, Rafsanjani -- reportedly still busily rallying clerics to support an effort to overturn the election -- met in public with relatives of those arrested in the regime's post-election crackdown, a defiant act that raises his profile. And Khatami issued a blistering statement about the fraud and the subsequent crackdown:

"Many people voted because we called for a high turnout. With this result and the way of confrontation (with post-election protests) you can be sure that even us (reformers) cannot ask people to take part in the next election. ...

"If you want to calm the atmosphere, why are you carrying out mass arrests? Oppressing people will not help end the protests. If these people have committed crimes, why are their legal rights as citizens not preserved, why don't they have access to a lawyer, why are they not tried in a court, why haven't they been charged?"

And he blasted the circus-style "confessions" by those under arrest:

"Obtaining confessions in front of cameras is a useless old method. Confessions under pressure are not valid."

Most stunning, and widely reported, is the fact that a leading clerical body in Qom, Iran's religious capital, issued a strong statement calling the election a fraud. The statement, from the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom -- a mainstream group that includes many reformists in its ranks -- said:

"Candidates' complaints and strong evidence of vote-rigging were ignored. ... Peaceful protests by Iranians were violently oppressed. Dozens of Iranians were killed and hundreds were illegally arrested. The outcome is invalid."

In a statement reported by PressTV, an Iranian state-controlled satellite broadcasting network, Rafsanjani further criticized the election during his meeting with the families of those arrested:

"People from across the country created a very positive and epic scene by showing up at the polls, but unfortunately the events that followed and the problems that were created for some turned bitter. I do not believe that any alert conscience could be content about the circumstances that have unfolded. By respecting the rights of all citizens, we must try to maintain our unity and understanding and raise the trust in our system and its credibility among the people and prevent enemies from taking advantage."

Rafsanjani is playing a middle game, trying to appeal to those on the fence, in part by appealing to them to rise in defense of the entire system. Many conservative clerics, caught in the middle, fear that the reformists push Iran down a slippery slope toward the collapse of the entire system, so Rafsanjani is making the oppositve argument: that the regime's own actions threaten disunity and political explosions that could spell the end of the Islamic Republic. As chairman of the Expediency Council, a clerical body designed to resolve disputes within the system, and as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, another body of clerics who have the responsibility to appoint -- or dismiss -- the Leader, Ali Khamenei, Rafsanjani wields great power.

None of this, of course, is enough to force a new election or to remove either Ahmadinejad or Khamenei, who are committed to hanging on to power by force of arms. At the very least, the regime's intelligence apparatus knows about every detail of what's happening behind the scenes, and they won't permit Mousavi, Karroubi, Rafsanjani et al. much maneuvering room. But it shows that the opposition isn't giving up, and that Round Two of the post-election showdown may be underway soon.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot?

It's encouraging that General Jim Jones, the national security adviser, seems to have laid down the law to US generals in Afghanistan: no more troops.

That's not the same as less troops, but it's a start.

In a lengthy Washington Post report, Jones is quoted extensively telling the generals that economic development in Afghanistan will win the fight with the Taliban, not more soldiers. And he used rather colorful language to make his point. During the meeting with Jones, General Nicholson, the US commander, dropped hints that he'd like more forces. Here's the Post account:

Jones recalled how Obama had initially decided to deploy additional forces this year. "At a table much like this," Jones said, referring to the polished wood table in the White House Situation Room, "the president's principals met and agreed to recommend 17,000 more troops for Afghanistan." The principals -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gates; Mullen; and the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair -- made this recommendation in February during the first full month of the Obama administration. The president approved the deployments, which included Nicholson's Marines.

Soon after that, Jones said, the principals told the president, "oops," we need an additional 4,000 to help train the Afghan army.

"They then said, 'If you do all that, we think we can turn this around,' " Jones said, reminding the Marines here that the president had quickly approved and publicly announced the additional 4,000.

Now suppose you're the president, Jones told them, and the requests come into the White House for yet more forces. How do you think Obama might look at this? Jones asked, casting his eyes around the colonels. How do you think he might feel?

Jones let the question hang in the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted room. Nicholson and the colonels said nothing.

Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF -- which in the military and elsewhere means "What the [expletive]?"

The Post added that the generals seemed "to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get."

It seems significant to me that Jones did this in public, with a reporter in the room, rather than privately, since it does commit the administration to an end to the escalation in Afghanistan. (Or else we can all say: WTF?)

Ahmadinejad Meets O.J.

In a distinctly Orwellian turn of events, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ("Mr. Sixty-Three Percent") has pledged to investigate the death of Neda Agha-Soltan. It reminds me of O.J. Simpson's pledge to leave no stone unturned in the search for his wife's killer.

According to the BBC:

In a letter to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, Mr Ahmadinejad described Neda's death as "suspicious," reported the official IRNA news agency on Monday.

His letter added: "I request you to order the judicial system to seriously follow up the murder case... and identify elements behind the case and inform the people of the result," reported IRNA.

Since Iran has already blamed the BBC for causing the unrest in Iran, what will Ahmadinejad say about the BBC's dutiful reporting of his call for an inquiry? Does it mean that Ahmadinejad himself is a tool of BBC? Oh, what a tangled web he weaves.

Little to Celebrate in Iraq

There's little to celebrate about the US pullback in Iraq.

More than six years after the US invasion, Iraq is shattered. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead -- far more, incidentally, than even the largest estimates of the number of Iraqis who died during 35 years of Saddam Hussein's rule -- its social fabric is utterly destroyed, its economy is in ruins, and its dominant political faction is in hock to neighboring Iran.

And now what?

As we pull back, we're leaving Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in charge. Increasingly, Maliki is taking on the trappings of a dictator. He's established a network of security agencies that report directly to him. He's built a countrywide patronage system to bribe and pay off tribal allies, in anticipation of 2010 elections. He's shown no compunction against using the army, the police, and the secret agencies he controls to eliminate rivals. He's used divide-and-conquer tactics to outflank the Sunni-led sahwa movement, known as the Awakening or the Sons of Iraq, driving some of them back into armed resistance and others into sullen resentment or fear for their lives.

And Maliki, despite his protestations that he is a born-again "nationalist," has close ties to Iran. With Iran now revealed as a fundamentalist-run, naked military dictatorship, I expect Iran to act ruthlessly vis-a-vis Iraq, and if he wants to stay in power Maliki will pretty much have to go along.

A prominent Sunni activist from northern Iraq told me yesterday that anyone who thinks about opposing Maliki in Iraq has to fear for his or her life. The fact remains that despite the resurgence of secular nationalism in Iraq, as evidenced by the results of provincial elections last February, Maliki sits atop a conspiratorial little party called Al Dawa, a fundamentalist Islamist grouping, and he is reliant on a small, secretive clique that surrounds him. During the February election, in order to appeal to Iraqi voters, Maliki posed as a nationalist of sorts, but in fact he is dependent on two outside powers. First, he's dependent on the United States, for despite his bravado about the US withdrawal from Iraq's cities, Maliki desperately needs American backing to remain in power, to build up his armed forces. And second, Maliki is dependent on the good will of Iran, who could topple him instantly if he crossed Tehran.

And Obama?

It's clear that Obama doesn't want to think about Iraq. It seems like he's hoping it just goes away, so he can worry about Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine. But Iraq's not going away.

During the campaign, Obama promised to convene an international, United Nations-led conference on Iraq. That's exactly what he ought to do: allow the US to step back, and let the world community step in to help Iraq reconcile its warring factions. The goal of the meeting ought to be to rewrite Iraq's absurd Constitution, which empowers the ruling ethnic and sectarian parties (i.e., the Shiite religious bloc, including Dawa, and the Kurds) who wrote it. Short of that, Iraq is likely to explode at some point, either this year, in advance of the 2010 elections, or soon thereafter. As the US presence in Iraq shrinks, Maliki will have less and less incentive to cooperate with any UN effort. As it is, he'd fight it tooth and nail, and it may already be too late.

Fixing Iraq means two things. First, it means that the world community has to step in to empower the secular (anti-religious party) nationalist forces that have been shut out of power by Maliki, including both Sunni elites and secular Shiites, such as former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and countless others. Only they can restore a semblance of true central government in a shattered country, make a deal with the expansionist Kurds over autonomy and Kirkuk, the oil-rich city in the north, and start to rebuild Iraq as a nation-state. And second, it means that Obama has to come to an understanding with Iran over Iraq, one that involves the full participation of Iraq's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey, so that neither the United States nor Iran seek to use Iraq as a battlefield for their competing ambitions in the region.

Talking to Ahmadinejad, Part II

President Obama has gone about as far as he should go in condemning the government of Iran for its crackdown and repression of a popular movement for change in Iran. Since the election on June 12, his rhetoric has become harsher by the day. Yesterday, he said:

The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions.

Don't we all! But it's one thing for a Nation columnist to call the actions by the current Iranian regime disgusting and despicable, as I've done many times, and it's another thing for the president of the United States to do it. Because in the next few months, Obama may very well have to send emissaries to sit down and talk to that very regime. Now that he's condemned the repression, let's hope Obama goes back to his original plan of trying to get Iran to the table.

The cold, hard reality of Iran is that the current regime, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president is likely to remain in power. Yes, the legitimacy of their government has been stripped away. Yes, the regime has all but eliminated the "republic" part of "Islamic Republic," relying now on sheer military power to rule. Yes, its crackdown on dissidents has been ugly and brutal.

But if Khamenei and Ahmadinejad want to talk to the United States, perhaps as soon as this fall, America's answer had better be: Yes.

To be sure, it isn't clear if Iran's leaders will want to talk at all. Why? Three reasons. First, because during the election season and afterwards, Ahmadinejad's campaign whipped up the president's base, which consists of hard-core ultranationalists and religious zealots, and it won't be easy to put them back on the leash if the regime decides to talk to the United States. Second, because Khamenei has blamed the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and Israel for the actions of the "terrorists" (i.e., pro-democracy marchers) challenging his authority, and he may find it useful or necessary to demonize the West for the foreseeable future, making it unlikely he will respond positively to any tenders from the West. And third, because most of the more moderate members of Iran's establishment, including in the field of national security and foreign policy, who might have served as personal envoys for Khamenei in talks with the West, have either sided with the reformists or with conservative opponents of Ahmadinejad in Iran's parliament and in the camp of Mohsen Rezai, the former Revolutionary Guard commander who ran against Ahmadinejad.

Yesterday, at a forum organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former top State Department official Nick Burns -- who retired in 2006 after serving as the point man on Iran policy during the Bush administation -- argued that even if Ahmadinejad wants to talk, Obama ought to refuse. David Ignatius, the Washington Post columnist, asked Burns, "In trying to stabilize Iran, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may crave negotiations with the United States. Doing so would be very popular in Iran. What should the United States do if that happens?" Burns responded:

"That really is the key policy question. We have to be very careful not to give undue legitimacy to this government, not while people are in the streets. ... We should be patient. We should see what happens. For a month? For a year? ... We have to be very careful not to get them to the negotiating table very soon. Now is not the time."

That seems wrong-headed to me, on all counts. While Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may not want to talk soon, for the reasons I stated above, if they do offer to talk I think it will absurd and foolhardy not to take them up on the offer. Spurning an offer by Tehran to talk to Washington would instantly undue all of Obama's good will in Iran and in the region, and it would give the hardliners ample ammunition to further demonize the United States domestically.

Yesterday, in responding to a reporter's question at his news conference, here's how Obama handled that issue:

QUESTION Thank you, Mr. President. Your administration has said that the offer to talk to Iran's leaders remains open. Can you say if that's still so, even with all the violence that has been committed by the government against the peaceful protesters? And if it is, is there any red line that your administration won't cross where that offer will be shut off?

THE PRESIDENT Well, obviously what's happened in Iran is profound. And we're still waiting to see how it plays itself out. My position coming into this office has been that the United States has core national security interests in making sure that Iran doesn't possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders.

We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage, and become a part of international norms. It is up to them to make a decision as to whether they choose that path. What we've been seeing over the last several days, the last couple of weeks, obviously is not encouraging, in terms of the path that this regime may choose to take. And the fact that they are now in the midst of an extraordinary debate taking place in Iran may end up coloring how they respond to the international community as a whole.

We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed. But just to reiterate, there is a path available to Iran in which their sovereignty is respected, their traditions, their culture, their faith is respected, but one in which they are part of a larger community that has responsibilities and operates according to norms and international rules that are universal. We don't know how they're going to respond yet, and that's what we're waiting to see.

Reading that carefully, it is clear that Obama isn't taking the offer to talk off the table. (In other words, all options are on the table!)

In a piece of staged Q & A, Obama called on the Huffington Post, whose reporter rather theatrically forwarded a question to Obama "directly from an Iranian." Pressed by the reporter to say whether he'd refuse to recognize Ahmadinejad an Iran's president, Obama said, correctly, "There are significant questions about the legitimacy of the election." But he added:

"Ultimately, this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be and the structure of their government."

Later, bugged by Major Garrett of Fox News, Obama still insisted that he's willing to talk to Iran's leaders, and he reiterated the offer to host Iranian diplomats at July 4 gatherings at US embassies:

GARRETT Are Iranian diplomats still welcome at the embassy on the Fourth of July, sir?

THE PRESIDENT Well, I think as you're aware, Major, we don't have formal diplomatic relations with -- we don't have formal diplomatic relations with Iran. I think that we have said that if Iran chooses a path that abides by international norms and principles, then we are interested in healing some of the wounds of 30 years, in terms of U.S.-Iranian relations. But that is a choice that the Iranians are going to have to make.

GARRETT But the offer still stands?

THE PRESIDENT That's a choice the Iranians are going to have to make.

The neocons, including Elliot Abrams -- who's quoted in the papers today -- are pushing hard for Obama to refuse to talk to Iran. Let's hope he continues to reject that advice.

The Next Explosion in Iran

Gunfire, tear gas, and water cannons used by baton-wielding security forces in Iran have forced an uneasy calm on Tehran and other cities, but Mir Hossein Mousavi isn't backing down. And the next explosion could come when the Guardian Council, the twelve-member clerical body assigned the task of reviewing the results of the June 12 election releases its report. By all accounts, the Council -- half of whose members are appointed by, and loyal to, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the other half is nominated by Iran's Parliament and approved by Khamenei -- will ratify President Ahmadinejad's reelection.

In today's post I want to focus on the election itself. A newly released statistical study of the rigged election by Chatham House raises enormous questions about the validity of the Interior Ministry's reported vote totals. And Mousavi himself is making the point, in detailed fashion, that the vote was bogus.

The Chatham House analysis, while wonky and full of detailed charts, provides the clearest evidence yet that Ahmadinejad and Co. rigged the vote.

It shows, for instance, that in at least ten provinces, in order to have amassed the vote totals given to him, Ahmadinejad would have had to have won all the voters who backed him in 2005, all of the voters who, last time, voted for the centrist candidacy of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, all of the voters who, last time, sat out the election and didn't vote at all, and -- on top of that -- up to 44 percent of the voters who, in 2005, backed the reformist slate!

Example: Ahmadinejad won 765,000 votes in Hamedan province. In 2005, he received 195,000. To win the additional 570,000 votes, Ahmadinejad would have to have won all 218,000 voters who didn't vote in 2005, all 175,000 Rafsanjani voters, and nearly a quarter of the 322,000 voters who cast their ballots for the reformists. Keep in mind that most, if not all, of the non-voters in 2005 would be people disgusted with and cynical about voting at all, the vast majority of whom would probably have cast their ballots for Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, or Mohsen Rezai this time, if they voted at all.

In province after province, the data hold.

The Chatham House data also show, conclusively, that rural voters do not support Ahmadinejad, contrary to the oft-repeated myth in the media and among many analysts. In 2005, for instance, the report shows a perfect correlation: the more rural the province, the lower Ahmadinejad's vote in 2005. Why? "Much of Iran's rural population is comprised of ethnic minorities: Lors, Baluch, Kurdish, and Arab amongst others. These ethnic minorities have a history of voting Reformist," says the report. In 2005, they voted overwhelmingly for Karroubi and for Mostafa Moin, not Ahmadinejad. The report, backed by detailed statistical analysis, shows that to have won the support he claims to have achieved in rural areas, Ahmadinejad would have to have won fully half of the reformist vote, a notion that the report calls "highly implausible."

It also notes, wryly, that "in two conservative provinces, Mazandaran and Yazd, a turnout of more than 100 percent was recorded." (The Guardian Council, in preliminary findings about the election, announced on Monday that in some cases vote totals around the country did exceed the total number of registered voters, but that this happened in "only 50 cities.")

Rather stunningly, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani -- a fiercely conservative partisan who, nonetheless, was a backer of Ahmadinejad's conservative opponent in the June 12 election, Mohsen Rezai -- has declared that the vote may be suspect. Here's what he said:

"The Guardian Council should use every possible means to build trust and convince the protestors that their complaints will be thoroughly looked into. A majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election result is different from what was officially announced. The opinion should be respected and a line should be drawn between them and the rioters and miscreants. ... Although the Guardian Council is made up of religious individuals, I wish certain members would not side with a certain presidential candidate."

By "certain presidential candidate," of course, Larijani means Ahmadinejad.

Mousavi himself isn't pulling punches. He said that "disgusting measures" were used to fix the election, adding, in a letter to the mullahs of the Guardian Council:

"All these counts of irregularities plus many others that were mentioned in previous letters . . . are reasons to cancel the election nationwide. ... The result was reversed. ... The number of mobile ballot boxes was increased significantly, and there were no monitors present at those stations. Our representatives were not allowed to be present at the mobile ballot boxes during transportation. Considering the fact that there were 14,000 of those, that gave them the ability to carry out any violation of any sort. The ballot boxes were sealed before we could verify that they were not filled up before election day."

"There were 45.2 million eligible voters, and 59.6 million voting slips with serial numbers were printed. A day before the elections, there were millions more printed without serial numbers. The fact that there were so many extra voting slips itself is questionable. There is no way we could have run out of voting slips so early into the elections."

The Showdown Builds In Iran

Tens of thousands of people appeared on Tehran's streets today, again, despite Ayatollah Khamenei's clear warning that they'd be met with force and violence.

According to reports from various quarters, the demonstrators have added a new chant to their repertoire: "Death to Khamenei!" If so, another red line -- and an extremely explosive one -- has been crossed.

Thousands of troops from the Revolutionary Guards, the police, and the Basij paramilitary force -- the mosque-based, devout followers of Khamenei -- blockaded Revolution Square in Tehran today, the proposed site of the main opposition gathering, and they used tear gas, metal batons, and water cannons to keep people out of the square.

It's unclear whether the show of force will quell the protests. The energy is there. Video from Tehran overnight showed that the skies over the city echoes last night with cries of "God is Great!", in what has become the movement's call to arms. (It's a direct echo of the anti-Shah revolution in 1979.) According to the Guardian, the regime has managed to stall the protests, and it reports that both Mir Hossein Mousavi and Medhi Karrubi, the reformist candidates on June 12, are wavering about open defiance of a regime bent on violence:

The momentum of Iran's "green revolution" - triggered by allegations of electoral theft earlier this month - appeared to stall yesterday, as thousands of plain clothes and uniformed security officials swamped Tehran, using tear gas and water cannon on a hard core of about 3,000 demonstrators.

The paper reports a "climate of fear growing in Iran," adding:

In the first indications that the extraordinary week of protests might be coming to an end, Karoubi's Etemad-e Melli party said plans for their participation in the rally yesterday had been scrapped for lack of a permit. "Because of not obtaining permission, the rally today has been cancelled," a party spokesman said yesterday. An ally of Mousavi said the politician had urged his supporters not to march on Saturday or Sunday.

But other reports say that Mousavi has called for a general strike, and that he has said that he is prepared for martyrdom:

Opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi said he was "ready for martyrdom," according to an ally, in leading protests that have shaken the Islamic Republic and brought warnings of bloodshed from Iran's Supreme Leader.

Mousavi also called on Saturday for a national strike if he is arrested, a witness said.

The showdown is building.

Here's President Obama's latest:

The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.

As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.

Martin Luther King once said - "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples' belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.

The Ayatollah Throws Down the Gauntlet

Speaking to a government-organized throng bused in from around Tehran and as far away as Qom, Iran's religious capital, and other cities -- a crowd, no doubt, vastly inflated by dutiful members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the fascist, mosque-based Basij thugs -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threw down the gauntlet against the Green Wave.

He said:

"Nothing can be changed. It's finished, the Presidential campaign."

He added, as if we didn't know, that he's on the side of President Ahmadinejad. "The President was closest to my point of view," huffed the Leader. And he issued not-so-veiled warnings to Iranian citizens to behave, to "be careful how they are acting, careful what they are saying."

The election he said, was "a sign from God." And in case people didn't get God's message, he warned of "bloodshed and chaos" if the street protests continue. "Street challenge is not acceptable," he said.

Make no mistake: it's by far the most serious, even existential crisis for the Islamic Republic since its founding in 1979. By blatantly rigging the vote, and by their heavy-handed crackdown in the wake of the travesty, the regime has shattered its legitimacy. Its leadership, including Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, are isolated from virtually every important segment of Iranian society -- students, workers, intellectuals, the business class, and even the very clergy that is at the heart of the system -- and they stand revealed as a repressive, reactionary military dictatorship.

What remains to be seen is whether the opposition will back down in the face of that repressive power.

We'll know soon. The real explosion could some within a few days, when the so-called Guardian Council -- a group of twelve bearded old clerics slavishly loyal to Khamenei -- confirms the bogus election results. If they do, as expected, sometime mid-week, it's possible that the sustained street protests could become a revolution.

From an Iranian source, it appears that for Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Medhi Karroubi, and other leaders of the movement, there's no backing down. Here's what he said:

"Mousavi and the others cannot compromise. They know that if Ahmadinejad remains in power, he will try to eliminate all of them. All of them. And it will be violent.

"The Ahmadinejad people are trying to weaken and destroy the 'republic' part of 'Islamic republic.' They dislike democracy, they dislike elections, they dislike accountability. What they want is to establish a regime with an unelected Islamic leader, something like a caliph, who has absolute, unchallenged authority."

On the other hand, although many of the protestors -- including Mousavi and Rafanjani, the wily wheeler-dealer -- have impeccable establishment credentials, it's increasingly clear that most if not all of the opposition leaders want a fundamental change in the way Iran is organized.

That, highly informed Iranian sources say, would include replacing Khamenei with a council of leaders, radically reinterpreting the Constitutional requirement for a Leader, or rahbar, who represents the velayat-e faqih principle ("rule of the jurisprudent") with a far more flexible, collegial body. Were this to happen, it wouldn't mean the fall of the Islamic Republic, but it would represent a huge step toward eliminating its worst features.

Many supporters of the opposition -- as I learned during nearly two weeks in Iran -- don't want the clergy to rule at all. "The mullahs are like idols," one government official told me. "They must be broken."

Rafsanjani is a two-term president (1989-1997), an extremely well-connected, wealthy power broker, and chairman of the Expediency Council. Back in the 1980s, he helped to elevate Khamenei, who was president of Iran from 1981 to 1989, to the post of Leader -- succeeding Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder -- in exchange for Khamenei's support for Rafsanjani becoming president. Since then he's shuttled back and forth between the hardline camp and the reformist camp, while maintaining a pragmatic (opportunist) stance. Now it seems he's irrevocably thrown his lot in with the reformists, including Mousavi and former President Khatami. And it's Rafsanjani who, if he chose to, might be able to manipulate the levers of power in Iran to oust Khamenei as Leader.

So far, it's still unlikely. The ruling clique has the army, the Guard, the intelligence service, and courts, the police, the media, and its street thugs to support them -- and, according to some reports, Rafsanjani is under house arrest. But the opposition has the streets.

Battle Lines in Iran

Amid scattered deaths and rising protests, the showdown in Iran continues to build. The Iranian regime's crackdown is gathering momentum, with reports of sweeping arrests of opposition figures, militia raids on university campuses, and threats from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that protestors are liable to be executed. (A contingent of pro-Ahmadinejad backers marched in Tehran yesterday, chanting: "Rioters should be executed!") According to Reuters, the Guard statement said:

"We warn the few elements controlled by foreigners who try to disrupt domestic security by inciting individuals to destroy and to commit arson that the Islamic penal code for such individuals waging war against God is execution."

Of course, the "elements" are hardly "few," they are not "controlled by foreigners," and their actions have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, dignified, and restrained rather than trying to "destroy" and "commit arson." Yet the threat is plain.

Ibrahim Yazdi, the dissident veteran of the 1979 revolution who is a leader of the Freedom Movement of Iran -- and who I interviewed at length at his home in Tehran the day after the rigged election -- is reportedly sought by the Iranian security forces, who came to home to arrest him. He was not there, according to the report. The Washington Post reports that more than 170 opposition figures have been arrested, including senior officials.

The anti-Ahmadinejad coalition is deep and broad. It includes conservative, Old Guard founders of the Islamic Republic, who view Ahmadinejad with disdain and who resent the coming to power of his coterie of Revolutionary Guard commanders; the large and growing majority of Iranian clerics and senior ayatollahs, many of whom have long viewed the Leader, Ayatatollah Ali Khamenei, as an upstart and usurper since he was elevated to his position 20 years ago; nearly the entirety of Iran's business class, especially those involved in high-tech, aviation, oil and gas, and heavy industry, who blame Ahmadinejad for his catastrophic mismanagement of the economy and for the crippling economic sanctions; the entire class of Iranian reformists, from more liberal-minded clerics like former President Khatami to more centrist ex-officials such as former Prime Minister Mousavi, the presidential candidate; a large contingent of Iranian women, energized by the role of Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi's wife, who I met in Tehran, who campaigned vigorously for her husband and for women's rights; and of course, the educated elite of Iran, including students, artists, filmmakers, intellectuals, writers, and musicians.

The pro-Ahmadinejad bloc is a typically fascist one. It includes, first of all, the 150,000-strong Revolutionary Guard, the paramilitary, million-strong Basij militia, thug-like, unofficial vigilante groups like Iranian Hezbollah (unrelated to Lebanon's Hezbollah), the police, and other security forces. Important elements of the national security bureaucracy, who are on Ahmadinejad's payroll, support him enthusiastically. An increasingly isolated, and very hard line, bloc of senior clerics -- including Khamenei, members of the all-powerful Guardian Council, and an ultra-conservative group of clerics in Qom, centered on followers of Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi and his students -- supports Ahmadinejad, though they are arrayed against the opposition clerics. And of course, Ahmadinejad has a loyal base among the religious right, rural and small town voters who've been showered with petty largesse under his rule, and ultra-nationalists who find his appeal to defiant anti-Westernism stirring. The Revolutionary Guard, which has constructed a vast economic enterprise in Iran, is skimming profits, smuggling banned goods, and elbowing out Iran's battered private sector.

My own view -- and this was confirmed by a number of insiders I met with in Tehran -- is that the traditional balance of power has been upended. According to conventional wisdom, Iran's president is a figurehead with little or no power, while the Leader (often mistakenly called the "Supreme Leader") is the all-powerful commander in chief and decision-maker. At the very least, that balance is tilting, and I'll leave it to closer watchers of Iranian politics than me to figure out how far it's moved. But it's clear that Ahmadinejad, his military and paramilitary allies, and the radical clerics that support him have at least surrounded if not neutralized Khamenei, the Leader.

Part of the stuggle that's unfolding now is a struggle for the Leader's allegiance. Key allies of Mousavi, above all Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the corrupt billionaire and fixer who helped Khamenei come to power in the late 1980s, have been outraged by Ahmadinejad's bungling and mismanagement. If -- and this is a big, big if -- if the entire pro-Mousavi coalition I described above were to continue to challenge Ahmadinejad's rigged vote, if the street protests continue unabated, and if enough of Khamenei's former allies (like Rafsanjani, who met with Khamenei the day before Friday's election) can pull enough strings, it's possible that Ahmadinejad could be ousted in what would amount to a palace coup. That's very unlikely, but possible. And it is far from clear that Ahmadinejad would go quietly, even in that case.

The first inkling that the election outcome could be reversed was the statement from the spokesman for the Guardian Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, that the current review of the vote by the Council, ordered by Khamenei and expected to take a week to ten days, might "result in the nullification of the results and the holding of a new election," as the Washington Post reported. "That is not implausible," Kadkhodai said, to Mehr News, an Iranian press agency with government ties. One analyst has speculated that such a scenario could involve the Council disqualifying enough of Ahmadinejad's votes to bring his total under 50 percent of the vote, thus forcing a runoff election between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. To be sure, such an event would be nearly revolutionary, and it would further embarrass the Leader, who called the election results last Friday "sacred" and "blessed."

More likely is that Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and their allies will circle the wagons. They'll greet protests with an iron fist. Though things are ugly now, they could rapidly get a lot uglier, more violent, and more civil war-like. Thirty years ago, it was the decision of the Shah of Iran not to confront the revolutionaries with violence that allowed the anti-Shah movement to grow strong enough to oust the Shah. Then, as now, a relatively small number of deaths -- "martyrs" -- triggered a traditional, Shiite forty-day cycle of memorial marches and ceremonial protests and led to a crescendo of protest by the end of 1978. A month later, the Shah had fled.

So far it's unclear if the opposition can maintain its momentum. I'd say that the smart money is on Ahmadinejad holding on, backed by outright force. That's why President Obama is hedging his bets, praising the rebellious students and Mousavi voters but insisting that he's ready, willing and able to talk to Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. To the continuing frustration of the neocons, Obama isn't throwing American support to the Green Revolution. And that's a good thing.

As for me, well, I'm biased. I support the Green Revolution. But I'm not being shot at.

That doesn't mean that I support Iran's reactionary, benighted form of government. As far as I am concerned, a government run by mullahs is so seventh century. Do Iranians want to upend the entire system? Many do. Many Iranians are sick and tired of, and embarrassed by, a regime run by bearded old clerics. How much of Mousavi's coalition is made up of people who want to do away with the entire Iranian constitution and the Islamic Republic that goes with it? My guess? Except for Rafsanjani, his clerical allies, and others in the establishment, quite a few. Many of those who were attracted to Mousavi and Rahnavard supported them because they saw the reformists as a key that might open a locked door to a new Iran, one run by secular politicians. "Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished," said Hamlet. Of course, the princely Dane was talking about suicide. And for many Iranians, opposing the Iranian regime means exactly that.

Talking to Ahmadinejad

Now comes the hard part.

When I left Tehran early Monday morning, I felt guilty. Guilty because I was leaving behind the faces of the hundreds of people I talked to, met with, had tea with, and interviewed who were backers of the failed presidential campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi. In their faces, in their eyes, I saw the hope of a new Iran. They told me, passionately, that wanted freedom -- yes, freedom from the requirement of the hijab, but more important, freedom of expression, to speak freely, to have an independent media, to create works of art that don't have to be reviewed by the know-nothings of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

So what's the hard part? The fact that the United States is going to have to talk with the regime of President Ahmadinejad. And not only talk, but make a deal.

The people who wanted change aren't going to get it. The regime is too powerful, and it controls all the levers of power: the army, the police, the Revolutionary Guard and paramilitary groups, thuggish militias, the judiciary and courts, the media, and more. Those who hope that the reformists, including Mousavi, former President Khatami, and cleric Mehdi Karroubi, will support a revolt that makes use of the mass movement against Ahmadinejad will find their hopes dashed.

The Guardian Council and the powers-that-be, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, won't permit the election to be reversed. And they won't allow a popular movement to develop against it, despite the massive outpouring of anger, bitterness and resentment that has led hundreds of thousands of Iranians to gather in Tehran and other cities around the country.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of many Iranians I spoke with, the election was absurdly rigged. It's unlikely that they even counted the ballots, in fact, just posted a final number and called it quits. But whether the election was rigged or not, Ahmadinejad will be president of Iran until 2013.

That makes it exceedingly difficult for President Obama. First, it's hard because Ahmadinejad himself is virtually radioactive for American politicians. (As one Iranian told me in Tehran, anticipating that a US-Iran dialogue could start with exchanges between Congress and Iran's Majlis, "Can you imagine Howard Berman [chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee] standing next to Ahmadinejad?") That makes it politically difficult, extremely so in my opinion, for Obama to bring the American body politic and public opinion along on the ride to better US-Iran ties. And second, it will be even more difficult because for the next four years Ahmadinejad will be viewed as an illegitimate president who stole the election. So it's tough to imagine Obama dealing with a president who's bellicose and defiant, on one hand, and a usurper, on the other.

Still, it's got to be done.

From all factions, Iranians in Tehran told me that both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad want a deal with the United States. In fact, it is perhaps the one way that they can shore up their position at home, by showing that they can deal with the West. The Iranian leadership knows that Ahmadinejad is radioactive in the United States, and several insiders suggested that the Office of the Supreme Leader wants to create a post of special envoy for talks with the West, and with Obama, so that Ahmadinejad doesn't have to be point man. We'll see.

Part of the problem, from the Iranian side, is that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad seem to have a wildy inflated idea of Iran's power and influence. They mistakenly believe that Iran is dealing with the West from a "position of strength," when in fact Iran is in an extremely vulnerable position: it has no allies, it has a weak and crumbling economy, its oil output is falling, and it is desperately short of needed technology in high-tech, civil aviation, and oil and gas industries. If they really believe that Iran is powerful, even regionally, it could lead Iran's Khamenei-Ahmadinejad axis to overestimate their ability to strike a strong bargain -- in which case, the talks will go nowhere.

On the American side, I think Obama has handled an extremely delicate situation just about right. But he needs to go further, and the best step he could take would be to stop saying that the military option for Iran is "on the table." (In fact, the military option is always on the table, but he doesn't have to say so.) Making threats against Iran just bolsters the hardliners and undermines the pro-democracy movement.

Here, by the way, is the full text of Obama's remarks about Iran yesterday, when he was asked about the civil unrest in Iran and whether or not he is willing "to meet with Mr. Ahmadinejad without preconditions":

Obviously all of us have been watching the news from Iran. And I want to start off by being very clear that it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be; that we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran, which sometimes the United States can be a handy political football -- or discussions with the United States.

Having said all that, I am deeply troubled by the violence that I've been seeing on television. I think that the democratic process -- free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent -- all those are universal values and need to be respected. And whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they're, rightfully, troubled.

My understanding is, is that the Iranian government says that they are going to look into irregularities that have taken place. We weren't on the ground, we did not have observers there, we did not have international observers on hand, so I can't state definitively one way or another what happened with respect to the election. But what I can say is that there appears to be a sense on the part of people who were so hopeful and so engaged and so committed to democracy who now feel betrayed. And I think it's important that, moving forward, whatever investigations take place are done in a way that is not resulting in bloodshed and is not resulting in people being stifled in expressing their views.

Now, with respect to the United States and our interactions with Iran, I've always believed that as odious as I consider some of President Ahmadinejad's statements, as deep as the differences that exist between the United States and Iran on a range of core issues, that the use of tough, hard-headed diplomacy -- diplomacy with no illusions about Iran and the nature of the differences between our two countries -- is critical when it comes to pursuing a core set of our national security interests, specifically, making sure that we are not seeing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East triggered by Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon; making sure that Iran is not exporting terrorist activity. Those are core interests not just to the United States but I think to a peaceful world in general.

We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we'll see where it takes us. But even as we do so, I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we've seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was. And they should know that the world is watching.

And particularly to the youth of Iran, I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected.

Nice touch, the comment about the "youth of Iran."

Right-wingers in the United States are already comparing the Iranian unrest to Hungary, 1956, and calling on the United States to give its full support to the Green Wave. Nothing could be stupider. What they miss is that President Obama's outreach to Iran, including his Cairo speech -- which got a word-by-word exegesis prepared for Khamenei and was widely viewed by many Iranians -- is in part responsible for the sudden upsurge of support for Mousavi. And it happened not because Obama called for military action in Iran, and not because Obama backed Mousavi, but precisely because he didn't. Yes, Obama could go further, by renouncing force in dealing with Iran, and he should. But US meddling in Iranian politics would be counterproductive, to say the least.

At Tehran airport, as I was leaving Iran yesterday morning, I ran into a senior adviser to Karroubi, the reformist candidate and cleric. A few days earlier, I'd met with him in the lobby of a hotel in Tehran to talk about the election. Now, in the aftermath of the election, he was gloomy, saying the Iran's security forces had a list of people to arrest, and they were doing so steadily -- so he was getting out. In his mind, there's no question that the election was bogus. Despite the street protests, he said, there was little that the opposition can do, in the face of the regime's power. Changing Iran, he said, is a long-term project.

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