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Which Iranian radicals will win?

I've been one of those who have been skeptical that the Iranian opposition will be able to force the regime to accommodate its demands. Seeing few signs that the Islamic Republic's apparatus of control -- the security forces and the Basij militia -- are fracturing, I've said repeatedly that I don't think the Green Movement has the upper hand. I think that's still true, even after today's apparently massive protests.

That said, the dual radicalization that is going on helps the opposition more than it helps the regime. On the opposition side, the chants used to be about the election and ensuring a fair vote; now they're about "death to the dictator" and "death to Khamenei," the supreme leader. A friend of mine who monitors the Iranian media for a living told me a few weeks back that he's seeing increasingly radical rhetoric in the press as well. So it's not surprising that today's protests quickly turned nasty as demonstrators fought back with stones, clubs, fire, pieces of sidewalk, and anything else they could get their hands on.

Meanwhile, the regime is showing its willingness to do whatever it takes to maintain control, even killing people on the Shiite holiday of Ashura, something even the shah never dared to do. The nephew of Mir Hossain Mousavi, the defrauded presidential candidate, was either brutally assassinated outside his home today or killed during the protests, depending on which account you believe. Former President Mohamed Khatami, a broadly popular reformist, was assaulted while giving a speech inside a mosque formerly frequented by Ayatollah Khomeini. And there are dozens of pictures of regime thugs beating women on the streets, in full view of everyone else.

At some point, you'd have to think,  some in the security forces will want to have no part of this dirty business, and start to defect to the opposition. So far, though, we only have unconfirmed rumors that this is happening:

There were scattered reports of police officers surrendering, or refusing to fight. Several videos posted to the Internet show officers holding up their helmets and walking away from the melee, as protesters pat them on the back in appreciation. In one photograph, several police officers can be seen holding their arms up, and one of them wears a bright green headband, the signature color of the opposition movement.

Keep watching for this phenomenon --  if it keeps up, a regime increasingly seen as illegitimate will have a hard time holding on. As Steve Walt warns us, though, the United States could very easily screw things up, for instance by implementing gasoline sanctions that will hurt Iran's people more than the regime. The U.S. Congress is gearing up to pass such sanctions after the holiday recess, and the Iranian government seems dead set against compromising over the nuclear issue, so I'm not very optimistic that the right decisions are going to be made.

AFP/Getty Images

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Things to remember about the Nigerian terror suspect

Poor Nigeria. As if it didn't already have a terrible reputation, the alleged terror attempt by a 23-year-old Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab yesterday on a flight from Amsterdam to Detriot seals the deal. But as you're reading the news, a few caveats to remember: 

First, much of the information coming out about the suspect's origin comes from the Nigerian newspaper This Day.  While often a good source of initial information, this report probably shouldn't be taken as fact without other confirmation. The press in Nigeria, while vibrant, growing, and home to countless incredible journalists, has still been known to exagerate or assume at times. I have no reason to believe that is the case this time, but skepticism is warranted. 

Second, if the suspect does indeed come from a family of means, as his residence in London suggests (forgive a generalization, but anyone who is anyone in Nigeria has got a house in London), it says much about where the real terror "threat" is (and is not) coming from in Nigeria. Security analysts have been worrying about Nigeria since the Sept 11. attacks -- fearing that this about half-Muslim country of 140 million people would be a potential host to extremists. But at the end of the day, something that I've learned about Nigeria is that it takes money and connections to get things done. Just think back to the violence earlier this summer by the Boko Haram sect. The mostly-impoverished members of the group raised hell in the local context ... but that was it. Taking "jihad" international from Nigeria is still a long ways and a lot of financing off (if it is on the way at all).

Which brings me to one more point about extremism in Nigeria. Much of the religious violence that the country has seen in recent years has been less about religion and more about a country rife with corruption and wanting for institutions. When sharia law was introduced in the North earlier this decade, most analysts believe that it had more to do with a desire for the law -- any law -- to function. Since the secular government had failed for years, many sought refuge in the laws of religious fundamentalism.

And that brings us back to the alleged terrorist in questioning today. His grievances are different from these, one might imagine, since the lack of rule of law often works in favor of (rather than against) the elite. In short, what I'm trying to say is that there are two different phenomena going on here: mass dissatisfaction among many impoverished in the country's Muslim North, and the different brand of extremism that would incite a well-off 23-year-old to blow up a plane in Detroit. 

Finally, in the time that I've written this blog post, I have recieved several requests from news agencies and papers to help me connect them with reporters in Nigeria. An unfortunate reminder that the press in my former-resident country is drying up. And with each correspondent that leaves, it is trickier and trickier to piece together developments that unfold. For the last two years, editors have asked me why Nigeria matters. Case and point.