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Iran in uncharted waters

By Eurasia Group analyst Cliff Kupchan

The Iranian regime controls the guns and has the support of at least 30 percent of the population. That's probably enough to reestablish dominance in the streets and to avoid compromise in the bitter conflict stemming from the country's presidential election. That said, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tied himself as never before to Iran's controversial president -- and therefore could become increasingly vulnerable over the next year.

The crackdown now playing across front pages all over the world looks to be led by the police and the Basij, the militia blamed for much of the current violence. But press reports suggest it may also include elements of the Revolutionary Guard, demonstrating clearly that the government now means to quell the protests as fully and quickly as possible. Eyewitnesses placed the crowds of pro-opposition protesters last week at more than 100,000, but over the past two days, the numbers in the streets of Tehran have become noticeably smaller.

Iran's government will likely regain control of the streets of Iranian cities. Violent repression will intimidate protestors, and the arrests of reformist leaders and continuing limitations on the internet and mobile phones makes organization of protests difficult. Importantly, the regime has far better control of police, military and security forces than did the governments of Georgia, Ukraine, and Lebanon -- the focal points for "color revolutions" of recent years.

There is a short-term and a serious longer-term threat to Iranian stability. The shorter-term threat is of a fracture within Iran's governing elite. One of Mousavi's most high-profile supporters is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and current head of the Assembly of Experts, who currently appears to be working to build support among the clerical establishment in Qom. His precise intentions are unclear, but Rafsanjani's actions represent a larger fracture occurring within the Iranian regime between the militaristic Revolutionary Guard (which supports Khamenei and Ahmadinejad) and the clerics (who support the regime but were never enthusiastic about Khamenei's elevation to supreme leader or Ahmadinejad's presidency).

Another key powerbroker, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, said publicly on Sunday that "a majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different than what was officially announced," and warned the supervisory Guardian Council, which has final authority to rule on election appeals, against siding with one candidate. He's also called for support for the government and attended the supreme leader's Friday sermon last week. But if Larijani and other pragmatic conservative political figures jump ship, the government's non-military base will narrow further.

There's a greater long-term threat: The Leader's legitimacy, and by extension that of the system, is in question for the first time. In the past, the supreme leader managed to remain above politics, entering the fray only to mediate or impose a compromise. But the firm public and personal support he has expressed for Ahmadinejad, including at Friday prayer last week, makes Khamenei a partisan, now firmly linked to Ahmadinejad. This means that the Supreme Leader will also be connected in an unprecedented way to the president's actions, including his failed economic policy and extremist foreign-policy rhetoric -- factors that have divided many Iranian conservatives and motivated many of the protesters. Also, by endorsing an almost certainly rigged election, the Leader has further reduced his legitimacy. The vote matters to Iranians; the veneer of democracy in the system is a matter of national pride, and the Leader's repudiation of it will hurt him.

Finally, the opposition has been very effective in using Islamic symbolism against the Islamic Republic, focusing most of its protest on honoring the dead, wearing green, shouting ‘God is Great' from rooftops, and using other tactics reminiscent of the 1979 revolution. Especially in that context, every death will undermine the Leader's moral standing and further weaken the regime's legitimacy over the longer term.

Iran's hardliners will likely win the current battle in the streets, but Khamenei and Ahmadinejad now have a longer-term legitimacy problem. Further, if the regime continues on its current course, Iran will increasingly become a garden-variety military dictatorship, which would make the regime's ability to absorb internal shocks -- whether from economic crisis or social instability -- far narrower. The outcome of Iran's broader and deeper conflict is farther from certain. Iranian stability is in play as never before.

ALI SAFARI/AFP/Getty Images