Iranian internal politics appear to have arrived at a crucial turning point that has been inevitable since the election fraud and protests this summer. At the time, I wrote that the regime had given the population a straightforward choice: accept our repression or enter into a revolutionary movement with uncertain consequences. It’s a high-stakes gamble, but thus far it seems to have worked. The problem, as I wrote at the time, is that the regime forced a revolutionary situation in what was otherwise essentially a rights movement (it’s likely that most of the protesters were outraged not so much at the system in theory but at the fact that the system was duplicitous: they were supposed to have the right to choose between approved candidates but in reality did not; they were supposed to have the right to freely assemble and speak but in reality did not; etc.). What the regime did was to double down on its authority and refuse any compromise with the protesters and both the internal and external opposition, ruling out a recount or a new election or any reasonable means of addressing the fraud or recognizing the fairly limited rights Iranians are supposed to enjoy under the odd vilayat e-faqih system that supposedly blends theocracy with constitutional republicanism. The "Islamic" part of the "Islamic Republic" is intact through ongoing clerical rule, but the republican, and implicitly constitutionalist, part is in absolute tatters.
It’s been pretty clear for some time that the Iranian government is not capable of reforming itself internally and that the reform movement must either fail or turn into a revolutionary movement seeking regime change. It’s very natural that Iranians do not relish such a choice. It’s unlikely that there much of an inclination to go through another tumultuous revolt a few decades after the seismic events of the "Islamic revolution." And, after all, that’s how they got into this situation in the first place. Were serious, far-reaching reform possible, I’m sure most Iranians would prefer to take that route. But it’s not. Since that became clear very early on after the election, the question has therefore been when would new centers of political gravity outside of the "official," semi-approved opposition led by people within or associated with the system begin to form themselves and articulate an agenda that looks past reform to a more radical solution that can really change things.
It would appear that this, one hesitates to say finally because these things were always going to take a good deal of time and probably still will, is beginning to happen. Iranians seeking to restore or reclaim their rights, whether they view the government as betraying its principles or living up to them all too well, will simply have to look beyond the likes of Moussavi, Karroubi and Rafsanjani if their movement is going to get anywhere. There is no indication that any of these men are interested in a revolution or revolt against the system as such, but that is what will be required. Their campaign of internal reform, met with complete rejection and brute force by the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad clique, was never going to succeed, and there is no reason to think that it could in the future either. The government itself chose, deliberately and strategically, to create a revolutionary situation where there were no revolutionaries to act upon it. The question has been if and when revolutionary groups with any significant following and momentum would begin to form themselves and press the issue in a very different way and with very different goals than the official opposition has thus far been willing to.
It would appear this is happening, and it was almost bound to. Some groups were going to decide that they were not going to take this lying down, or be satisfied with a reformist agenda that is and almost certainly will be going nowhere fast. Apparently, this sentiment, and the split between internal opposition and those openly opposed to the system as such, is beginning to develop. The question now, therefore, is whether or not these groups will build a coherent political agenda capable of eventually challenging the power of the regime. It’s still totally unclear whether Iranians are ready for another uprising, but the government has given them a stark choice: it’s us, or the abyss.
Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and their allies in the Revolutionary Guards, are obviously counting on fear of the unknown, their own authority and the fact that they have genuine constituencies, and brute force, to dissuade the public from choosing confrontation over submission. Thus far, unfortunately their strategy has worked quite well. There is no way of knowing whether or not in the foreseeable future the Iranian opposition will form revolutionary groups and agendas that can take advantage of what is inherently a revolutionary situation and begin to build a mass constituency for regime change from within Iranian society. But if it’s ever going to happen, the decisive split that appears to be developing between the internal, reformist opposition to the regime and the external, revolutionary opposition will be one of the crucial turning points. This seems to be happening now.