The regime crackdown has broken up the large demonstrations and the international media has largely moved on — enabled unintentionally by Michael Jackson’s death — but don’t think the Iranian opposition is done for, according to Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council. Parsi just held a conference call to reinforce the point. “The is not one-trick pony … and it’s not just street demonstrations,” Parsi said. While the crackdown has left the opposition with the sensible calculation that assembling in the streets would be tantamount to a suicide wish, the opposition still has a potent weapon: “Ahmadinejad and Khamenei himself have lost a significant amount of legitimacy in the eyes of average Iranians.”
Well, OK, sure. But what good is that if the regime can withstand legitimacy-based challenges through the use of brute force? I asked Parsi if the opposition’s goal was still to overturn the election, given that its legal recourses are few, and if not, what a new goal might be. “The goal at this stage remains” a fair election result, he replied, since the “wiggle room is still extensive” for overturning the election. Contingencies could emerge, compelling an overturn of the results, such as “a large number of senior ayatollahs com[ing] out to criticize the legitimacy of the electoral results” or if the opposition could “get a majority of 86 people on the Assembly of Experts to come out, that can really threaten Khamenei and his institutions.”
Parsi further explained, in response to Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress, that the critical constituency would be conservative clerics who feel threatened by Ahmadinejad’s consolidation of power. In an irony from the perspective of the American debate about Iran — which conflates reformism with secularism — the clerics see Ahmadinejad “as a dangerous element, quite correctly, who tries to undermine the clergy as a whole.” That might compel some of them to resist Ahmadinejad, or to place pressure on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to find some compromise with the opposition.
But if a compromise can’t be found, then the opposition enters a new phase, having to face a choice between accepting Ahmadinejad and moving to a more radical position. “There are people loyal to the system, who don’t want to bring the system down but at the same time believe the system is quite imperfect [and wish to] ensure the system changes through peaceful means,” Parsi said. If they fail, “then we face a significantly more radical movement in Iran, with more bloodshed than we’ve seen.”
The important criterion for American policy right now has to be to reject Ahmadinejad’s attempts at portraying his victory as final. That means no negotiations, which is “creating some problems with the Obama administration, which is so very dedicated to the process of diplomacy,” Parsi said. While the administration has placed the onus for any diplomacy on Iran, if Iran calls the U.S.’s bluff and talks renew, it will send the message that the international community views the opposition’s efforts as futile.
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