The world is watching events in Iran. Are the street demonstrations prelude to the overturning of the theocratic regime? Will they spread to other countries in the region, some governed by regimes sustaining themselves through fixed elections? Can they head off Iran's nuclear ambitions?
The unsatisfactory answer to all these questions is almost certainly no. Thus President Barack Obama's hedged and hesitant first reactions to the protests against national elections sustaining the current regime in power.
Iran, without doubt, has been changed. Better educated and younger Iranians have for a long time sought westernization and moderation in their country. But are they a majority? We do not know. An American polling firm, doing extensive surveys before and on Iran's election day, found that the present regime would gain a more than 60 percent popular vote. Official returns validated that finding. On the other hand, more total votes were counted in some constituencies than there were registered voters. Cheating? Sure. But enough to justify the claim that challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi was the actual winner? Dubious.
We should have no illusions about Mousavi, presently thrust by events into an insurgent role he did not foresee for himself. Mousavi served as Iranian prime minister during the 1980s, during which time he was a diehard proponent of exporting Islamist revolution throughout the Middle East. He also presided over attacks on the U.S. Embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon and a general terror program in the region.
Other countries in the region are savoring the theocratic regime's comeuppance and discomfort. Yet most would not want avid reform movements taking hold in their own countries. A region-wide tide toward genuine democracy? Doubtful.
Iran's nuclear ambitions would likely be sustained even if Mousavi and his followers took power. Its near neighbors have such weapons. It sees them as its ultimate security guarantee. The United States and other Western countries now will bring fresh pressure on Iran to forswear the weapons and/or to submit to full inspections of its nuclear facilities. In the end, however, any country with the technical capability to develop such weapons retains the option to do so. Would we and others wage war against Iran to stop their development? No. Israel has threatened to do so but would be isolated if it tried. We have not done so against North Korea, a far more immediate and dangerous nuclear threat.
Yes, things have changed in Iran. Reform has put down deeper roots. But, near term, forces of order will prevail. No government, including our own, can tolerate continuing violence and disorder in its streets.
Our hearts are with the reformers. We should do what we can to sustain them, without appearing to meddle in Iran's internal politics. But, at the same time, we cannot indulge in rhetoric and make promises that lead Iranians to rise en masse — as we did with the Hungarian revolution and uprisings against Iraq's Saddam Hussein — only to find that we had no intention to help them directly.