This is Iran's Tienanmen Moment: soon Supreme Leader Khamenei will be faced with climactic decisions about how long to let the protests and demonstrations continue. Will he blink or send the troops in, firing? And, if he does, will they fire?
Try the link at top for background on the topic, which is mushrooming with the determined effort by supporters of officially-defeated former Prime Minister Moussavi's candidacy to take to the streets, come what may. Suffice to say that there was unseemly haste to declare President Ahmadinejad re-elected with an incredibly-large percentage of the vote, then more haste from Khamenei to endorse the result.
Moussavi, a savvy infighter with proven patriotic credentials (government leader through the war with Saddam's Iraq), said not so fast. He appealed to the Muslim clergy in the sacred city of Qom to review this cozy affair between Khamenei and his secular stooge Ahmadinejad. The first round ends with Khamenei appearing to blink and requesting an investigation of the results from the Guardian Council, a bunch of Shiite mullahs with an official role to oversee the government but with day jobs in the clergy, and presumably they are in the Supreme Leader's pocket.
Despite the apparent show of weakness, it's a move to control and defuse the situation. It sets up a classical sham outcome with the G.C. making a show of a review, proffering the rubber stamp, and, as Khamenei fervently hopes, things then going back to normal, with the delay allowing for diversion of the public attention (perhaps President Ahmadinejad--P.A. for short, oh, did I say "short"?-- could taunt the Jews or something).
In the current environment, though, this seems unlikely to work, so we could find the people back in the streets in a matter of weeks--angrily violent, this time. There might not even be a let-up in the demonstrations, unless the Green forces ask the followers to pause for a day or so, just to show their mastery of the people's actions.
So, for Khamenei, it may seem that it will be back to the original question: yield, or order the soldiers to shoot? And then, once he chooses to protect himself and the regime, the agonizing moments (days and weeks, in the case of Tienanment) when the military shows its willingness--or lack thereof--to follow orders or melt into the crowd.
It's happened before, and even in Iran: before overwhelming masses of people in the late '70's the Shah's forces chose to take off the uniforms and blend in as best they could. In several Eastern European nations in the '80's and '90's, the soldiers' clear unwillingness to shoot anymore unnerved the leaders, who generally never gave the order. Something similar to Iran's predicament happened at the end with the Marcos family in the Philippines, and the army gave way.
The mullahs will be aware that the track record for the military mowing down their own people is spotty, at best. They will want a more secure, smarter outcome. It's our thought that perhaps they are looking for a door.
It's a fairly simple concept, really, and either Khamenei or the Guardian Council could go for it: identify some wrongdoers as culprits for some real vote-rigging actions (my reading of the facts is that there were some millions of extra ballots, not properly marked except for the Ahmadinejad indication, tossed in with the real ones, so find the tossers!) The effect of the result of their inquiry is to throw into doubt whether P.A. exceeded the 50% needed to avoid a runoff (the official results tried to preclude this by announcing his vote was all of 62%, but no matter), so there will be a runoff.
This will delay the crunch, probably permanently. P.A. may lose a fair election under these more unfavorable circumstances (the irony is that I'm not sure he wouldn't have won eventually if the vote counting had been fair), but that's a relatively small defeat for Khamenei, and for the theocracy: the secular side is supposed to be unruly, and attention will be diverted from their real power. Justly so, even, if this were to be the outcome and it results from their interference.
The most bizarre angle I've seen so far is the story from Time (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1904628,00.html) that Obama foreign policy advisers feared the Moussavi victory scenario more than this, which was anticipated. The logic went that it would be much more difficult to come down hard on Moussavi's Iran than P.A.'s when Iran proceeds with nuclear weapon development. They believe this would be the case either way, as the decisions lie with the mullahs.
The argument that Moussavi wouldn't have made much difference (which Obama has now given public airing through his interview with John Harwood, released today) is minimally plausible, though the statement of Time's Massimo Calabresi that Iran "loses as much as 500,000 barrels a year in production capacity" doesn't convince me there's a problem--try 500,000 barrels a day. The Administration's reasoning is purely pragmatic, but if I were Obama's advisers I'd prefer a potential symbolic victory for Moussavi as proof of concept for Obama's Islamic policy and speeches, which would then have been followed by intensive effort to take advantage of good fortune. At any rate, all this is moot--short of a cataclysm, or Khamenei's taking my advice (hardly anyone else does, so why he?), we will be stuck with the big-mouthed shrimp, President Ahmadinejad. This I am certain has been anticipated by our folks, and the tactic should be to keep him out of the diplomatic dialogue: first talk at a lower level, then if there is progress, skip to the top guys: Obama and Khamenei.