Will Tehran choose the Tiananmen solution?

An east-west street of more than 30 miles divides Tehran, Iran’s megapolis of a capital, into two halves: a modern north and a traditional south. Thirty years ago the thoroughfare was named after Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavis, the last dynasty of monarchs in Iran. Today it is called Enghelab (Revolution) Street after the turmoil that led to the creation of the first theocracy in the country’s history.

In one of those ironies of which Iranian history is full, on February 11, the anniversary of the Khomeinist seizure of power, Revolution Street will be the dividing line between two forces fighting for the country’s future. Under an informal deal negotiated between the authorities and the opposition, two rival marches will be held to mark the anniversary.

Pro-government rent-a-mob crowds will have their orgy of clenched fists and “Death to America” to the south of the street; the pro-democracy movement will march north of Revolution Street, shouting “No to Islamic Republic, Yes to an Iranian Republic!” and “Down with the Dictator!”

Iran’s division into two camps was revealed last June when Ali Khamenei, the “Supreme Guide”, endorsed the results of what most Iranians believe to be a fraudulent election, which gave President Ahmadinejad a landside and a second four-year term. Over the past eight months, however, the dispute has moved beyond the issue of a stolen election as a fully-fledged pro-democracy movement has emerged that rejects the Khomeinist regime.

Even some former regime grandees, such as former President Khatami and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former Prime Minister and main opposition candidate in last June’s presidential election, now publicly admit that the Khomeinist revolution has failed and that theocracy always leads to despotism.

Suddenly Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr Khamenei appear to have become irrelevant as millions of people in insurrectional mood are pitted against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, which must decide whether to abandon the regime or drown its opponents in a bloodbath.

The more radical elements within the Revolutionary Guard, including its commander, Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, have publicly argued for a “Chinese solution” — a bloodbath modelled on the Tiananmen massacre of students in Beijing in 1989. Others, including the high command of the regular Army, have warned against such repression. The Khomeinist religious and political Establishment is equally divided between the “eradicators” and the “conciliators”. Millions of Iranians are waiting and watching to see which side is likely to prevail.

Increasingly isolated even within the Establishment, Mr Ahmadinejad is desperately trying to rally what is left of his radical base by beating the drums of xenophobia. Yesterday he tried to reassert his “anti-imperialist” credentials by announcing the start of a new programme of uranium enrichment of up to 20 per cent in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions.

His declaration, broadcast live on state television, seemed to be an abrupt contradiction of what his Foreign Minister was saying. Only hours before Manouchehr Mottaki announced Tehran’s readiness to exchange Iranian low-grade enriched uranium with higher-grade foreign enriched uranium at some unspecified point. The stratagem was devised by Russia and France to provide the US President, Barack Obama, with a fig leaf to cover the failure of his “extended hand” policy towards the Khomeinist despots.

Later this week the so-called 5+1 group — the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany — will have to decide what to do with Mr Mottaki’s apparent offer. Germany has already described the offer as “too little too late” while there are signs that the Obama Administration, too, is beginning to abandon some of its illusions about soft-soaping the Khomeinist regime into a more reasonable behaviour.

For years, two clocks have been simultaneously ticking in Iran: one counts the regime’s days, the other marks progress towards a Khomeinist bomb. Thanks to the pro-democracy movement, the first clock may now be running faster.

What happens on the streets of Tehran this week may stop that clock, at least for now, or make it tick faster. That would help the 5+1 decide whether to increase pressure on Tehran or accept its coming nuclear arsenal as a fait accompli.

While it is difficult to predict the behaviour of a regime drunk on its own apocalyptic rhetoric, the “Chinese solution” is unlikely to work in Iran. Mr Khamenei and Mr Ahmadinejad are incapable of uniting the ruling establishment in the same way as Deng Xiaoping was in 1989. Nor could they rely on political machinery such as the Chinese Communist Party.

More importantly, they cannot be certain about the loyalty of the regular Army, which has suffered immensely under the Khomeinist regime, while the Revolutionary Guard could split into several factions. At the same time, the regime is also facing mounting opposition from the Shia clergy that could sap the basis of its claim to legitimacy. During the past few weeks, more than a dozen top ayatollahs, including some close to the regime, have publicly broken with it, warning against any bloody repression.

The history of Shia-ism is full of schism provoked by political disputes disguised as religious differences. Today Khomeinism faces the risk of becoming yet another isolated fanatical sect such as the Akhbaris, the Heydaris, the Nematis and scores of other long-forgotten factions.

The regime has already executed two pro-democracy activists and sentenced nine others to death. These actions, designed to terrorise the people, appear to have had no effect as all opposition groups are vowing to continue the struggle for an Iranian republic.

For the first time in 30 years, a substantial segment of Iranian society, perhaps even a majority, is prepared for a democratic experience. Today the mood in Iran is very much like the one that made possible the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, and the creation of the first democratic parliament in the Muslim world. Rather than chasing the illusion of stopping the nuclear clock in Iran, the outside world should take greater notice of the clock of regime change.

Amir Taheri, the author of The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution.