Text size
related tags

When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, cannot root for his own national soccer team because its players are wearing green bands - showing support for the "green revolution" of reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi - the crack in national unity exposed by this week's election protest becomes a chasm. There's no greater insult than to have an Iranian national representative identify with Khamenei's political opponent, an act akin to burning the flag. Moreover, on a day when rallies are being held in memory of those killed in the demonstrations, who are seen as martyrs who died defending the sanctity of democracy; when the law forbidding protests is being trampled in the Iranian cities of Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz; when top Islamic scholars have issued edicts "not to cooperate with Ahmadinejad's regime" - then not only is the president-elect's status being questioned, but so is the entire regime, as well as Khamenei himself.

It isn't only the scope of the protests but their cause that matters. Iran's young generation - which makes up 60 percent of the population and never experienced the Islamic Revolution nor identifies with the ideology behind it - is channeling all of its bottled-up economic, social and democratic frustrations into the current demonstrations. At this point, U.S. President Barack Obama's rationale that Iran's policy won't radically change whether its president is Mousavi or Ahmadinejad is of secondary importance. Protests are without a doubt in favor of one symbol over another; in favor of a Green Revolution and a new dream, rather than for an Islamic Revolution.

So far demonstrators have refrained from calling for toppling Khamenei or quashing the Islamic Revolution. Ostensibly, their accusations are leveled against Ahmadinejad. At this crucial point, Khamenei has to decide how to react. He has three options: To sacrifice Ahmadinejad; to clash with protesters and shed blood; or to find a worthy compromise acceptable to Mousavi. It is highly doubtful that Khamenei will call for new elections, but he might ask Ahmadinejad to make a compromise "for the sake of national unity and the revolution's honor." He could then let the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists determine who will be president.

Such a move would be similar to the decision made by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who likened admitting Iran's defeat to Iraq to drinking a "cup of poison." Confronting millions of protesters will lead to civil war and the loss of the Islamic Revolution's legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Political compromise, then, is his preferred option, although so far he has not won Mousavi's approval. The momentum of the protests has for the first time opened up the possibility of real change in Iran's political structure.

But such protests can get out of hand, be taken over by local leaders or simply dissipate - an outcome that would be a long-term defeat for reformists. It is hard to say how events will develop, which is why Mousavi knows he has to pull the breaks some time. We probably won't know what Khamenei will decide until the end of the week, but the expectation is that the regime will unbridle the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and order a forcible clampdown on the protests. The chances he will call for a compromise are also still considerable.