WASHINGTON -- The anti-government protests in Iran following the government's rigged elections are doubtless a little more than the "robust debate" among Iranians that President Barack Obama welcomed during the election. Some of the debaters have been shot dead. Others have been hustled off to jail. I wonder whether this is an eye-opener for our novice president.
Conservatives have objected to his Laodicean calm in the first days of the bloodshed. He fastidiously refused to take sides. Only by the weekend did he come to his wits and call "on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people." After that, the bloodshed got worse. On Tuesday, he expressed "concerns," but by then, the demonstrators had a martyr, 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, an apparently nonpolitical singer who was shot dead, presumably by government riot-control troops, though she was not actually in the protest. The videotape of her death has been circulating in news media and on the Internet ever since.
Though the nonsensical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains the president of Iran after the disputed elections, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the country's supreme leader. Having lost confidence in the police and members of the street militia, the Basij, he called out the Revolutionary Guard to clamp down on the protests. Interestingly, the head of the guard in the province of Tehran, Gen. Ali Fazli, a veteran of the Iraq-Iran war, refused to fire on his own countrymen and was arrested. The guard itself is a powerful force in the country, with its own institutions and considerable independence from the government and the Rev. Khamenei's Guardian Council.
Now it seems likely that the guard will turn Iran into a military dictatorship, with the Rev. Khamenei slipping into a gray space somewhere between political power and spiritual authority. Thus, the outcome for now of the street demonstrations in Iran might well be what we Americans call the division between church and state or between mosque and state. Whether this will render Iran peaceful and an agreeable member of the world community is dubious. The Revolutionary Guard obviously is full of angry militants. Perhaps the best that the West can hope for is the ongoing splintering of the ruling military dictatorship, with some members of the guard resisting attacks on their countrymen and others attempting totalitarian control of Iran.
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