Text size

The lenses of cell-phone cameras have become the West's only tool for assessing the scope of the demonstrations now taking place in Iran's streets, since conflicting blog posts and government pronouncements offer a distorted picture of reality. As a result, the number of people thronging a few Tehran streets has become the sole means by which to measure the "revolution." This is an important - but it is insufficient.

For instance, who are the demonstrators? Are they all followers of Mir Hossein Mousavi, or is he losing ground to other rivals? What is happening in the villages, which comprise almost a third of Iran's population and the bulk of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's support? Are the middle classes - from merchants to low-level clerics - also participating in the demonstrations? And, most importantly, how long can the demonstrators maintain their momentum?

Judging by the messages Mousavi has posted on the Internet, he himself is torn. On one hand, he has asked his supporters to continue the demonstrations, though quietly - without confronting the security forces, sometimes even without shouting slogans. On the other hand, he insists that his goal is not to change Iran's system of government, but only to implement a few reforms, augment freedom of expression a bit and, above all, prevent Ahmadinejad from serving another term.

Mousavi and his associates know that the longer the demonstrations go on, the more the regime, and especially Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, will entrench themselves in their current positions. That is liable to lead to a violent showdown between the Revolutionary Guards, who have not yet exerted their full force, and the demonstrators. And at that point, a political compromise will become impossible.

Therefore, the opposition on Sunday proposed establishing a neutral commission of inquiry that would thoroughly investigate the entire election, instead of the recount of a random 10 percent of ballot boxes that Khamenei has instructed the Guardian Council to perform. This new proposal reflects an utter lack of faith in the Guardian Council, which Khamenei appointed, and if accepted, it will constitute a major achievement for the opposition.

Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, who is affiliated with Ahmadinejad's hard-line camp, has come out in favor of this proposal, saying the Guardian Council cannot be a neutral arbiter because some of its members expressed support for Ahmadinejad before the election. The opposition is also trying to recruit important clerics who have thus far declined to enter the political fray. Should they join Mousavi's camp, this would put heavy pressure on Khamenei.

Since neither side can be certain of victory, a mutually acceptable political compromise is still a likely outcome. But even if this does eventually happen, both sides will want to display maximum power on the streets until then. Thus, in the coming days, additional escalation is likely, in both the scope of the demonstrations and the amount of force the government uses to suppress them.