Mojtaba Zolnour, an Ayatollah Ali Khamenei representative in Iran's Revolutionary Guards, recently said mockingly: "We've taught big fish a lesson before. Nothing will happen if the three reformist leaders - Mohammad Khatami, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Mehdi Karoubi - sit in jail." According to reports on an Iranian opposition Web site, Zolnour was speaking before officers of the Basij militia, explaining the Ayatollah's approach toward demonstrators. He added, however, that the arrest of senior opposition leaders was not desirable at this time to prevent them from being turned into "saints."

These remarks are key to understanding the fears of the Khamenei regime. Public opinion and the voices of opposition leaders are not secondary concerns in their decision-making process. This is also why the Revolutionary Guards and regular police forces make a point to deny the use of live ammunition, and why they claim the deaths in recent demonstrations were the result of provocation.

All regimes, including the Iranian, are not quick to admit shooting their own citizens. After last June's bloody uprising - which protested the election results - the government handed its dirty work over to volunteer militias and agents in plain clothes in order to distance itself from the violence.

Ahmad-Reza Radan, deputy commander of the Iranian police, went out of his way to describe the most recent demonstrations as incitement designed to exploit Ashura, the most important religious holiday for Shi'ite Muslims. He said the head of the Tehran community police force - "a man known for ascribing the utmost importance to social issues" - tried to speak to the crowd, but failed. Radan emphasized that he had prohibited his men to use live ammunition; as for two deaths that day, he classified one as the result of a traffic accident, and the other as the result of "shots whose circumstances are under investigation."

While demonstrations were taking place, members of the Basij militia stormed into a home where former president Khatami was giving a speech and broke up the event. Witnesses say shots were deliberately fired on protesters. "We will fight until death. We'll take our country back," demonstrators shouted at Radan's police force. In photographs posted online, students can be seen setting security forces' motorcycles on fire, pushing police officers into a corner and throwing stones at them. But the tens of thousands of demonstrators who filled the streets of Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan and other cities are not capable of carrying out a coup. Not only do they face intimidating forces, like the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij and the police, the opposition lacks a determined political leadership that can or wants to take such a step.

Unclear goals

Mousavi, head of the Green Movement who lost in the 2009 presidential election - widely regarded as having been fraudulent - has made do until recently with a call for an investigation into the results and the holding of new elections. This week, after his nephew was killed in the demonstrations, Mousavi again refrained from making any militant statements. And so, too, has Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of a committee of experts which is supposed to supervise the Ayatollah and which has election data in its possession. Rafsanjani reprimanded the regime for its behavior, and a split between him and Khamenei emerged following the elections, but the goal of the protest is not clear to followers.

"We don't know who really makes decisions for the movement, we don't know who is involved in our movement," a student at Tehran University wrote in an e-mail to Haaretz. "We go out in the morning spontaneously to demonstrate. No one tells us how to demonstrate; things develop during the protests."

Judging by the slogans under which the protestors are marching, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no longer the target, but the regime's methods are also not at the top of their priorities. Instead, pictures of Khamenei are burned or torn, with cries of "Death to the dictator" directed at him as well. But when reading the articles of intellectuals in the reform movement, a straightforward demand to break the mold that Khamenei designed - in which the top religious leader is also the top political leader - is not easily located. These articles also lack any request to shape a different form of government.

Mousavi himself is a creation of the system. He and his spiritual guru, Ali Montazeri, whose death last month contributed to the renewed flare up of demonstrations, have criticized the leaders but not the system. Montazeri had been Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's candidate to succeed him as Ayatollah - but he fell from grace, was stripped of his title and was even sent to jail for saying the Iranian regime "is known in the world only for executions." He asked for reforms that would allow political parties to operate, would advance the standing of women and would provide for freedom of expression, but he never denounced the system itself.

The same is true for those close to him: Religious leaders like Yousef Sanei, thought to be Montazeri's successor as spiritual leader of the reformists, and Rafsanjani, the pragmatic politician who disappeared from government media outlets under orders from Khamenei. Rafsanjani's Web site still declares that "Every day is the Day of Ashura," a hint at what is currently happening in Iran, while Sanei's home page tells visitors how "the Imam Hussein and his followers chose to die [Ashura is a day of remembrance for Hussein, the son of Ali and the founder of the Shi'ites, who was killed in 680 C.E.]. With the blood they spilled on the righteous path, they stood up against injustice and oppression so that others could live in peace and tranquillity."

But these hints are not a substitute for policy. The regime, in contrast, made clear to Sanei - with the generous help of the Basij, who attacked his home - that he would be better off studying religious law and not getting involved in politics.

The reality on the ground

A different question is the stance of the Revolutionary Guards, whose role is to apply Khamenei's policies. Here, too, it turns out that the ideology upon which they are based is unclear. For example in the 2005 elections, many of the guards refrained from voting for Ahmadinejad; only an order from Khamenei brought them to the polls in the second round.

In the last elections, Mahsan Razavi, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, ran against Ahmadinejad, and during Khomeini's time, Sanei himself was the head religious scholar of the Revolutionary Guards.

These are just a few examples of ideological turnabouts made by many Revolutionary Guard members. But at this point there is no suspicion that the guards will rebel against their leaders, nor is the opposition calling on them to do so. The real test, however - in which millions of Iranians clash with the Revolutionary Guards - has not yet come to pass.

Masoud Behnoud, a key journalist and member of the opposition, wrote on his Web site that Iranian reality is different from the picture portrayed by the regime. He says, however, that Western media depictions of millions shouting slogans against the regime do not reflect the reality of Ashura either. "The reality," he writes, "is that whoever takes the risk in the present situation to voice his or her critical view represents thousands of Iranians who are remaining home and will come out at the appropriate time. That must be concerning [to the government]." Is Iran preparing for this moment?

The revolution against the Shah also began in this way. Meanwhile, it seems the leadership has determined that the use of additional force, more arrests and many threats will quiet the streets. But the regime may eventually have to make a sacrifice to the public, to prevent it from collapsing. In the final analysis, Iran is led by a pragmatic regime, which takes care to ensure its own survival, not by a gang of suicides.