Despite the recent protests, in the face of state-perpetrated violence, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will stay in power. Hearing this, many will lapse into despair over the prospects for achieving real social and political change in the country, or a shift in its foreign policy.
But the fact is, even with an Ahmadinejad victory, the regime -- and Iran itself -- will never be the same again. The emergence of a mass protest movement, reminiscent of 1979 itself, is a sure sign that a new path has been set. This is why continued engagement with Tehran may prove not only useful, but also essential in transforming Western-Iranian relations.
Importantly, the potential for Mir Hossein Mousavi and his fellow reformists to convert people power into leverage has not yet dissipated. If protests are restarted again and are sustained in Tehran and other major cities for another week, and if prominent clergy like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani show their support publicly, then the regime will have a serious problem on its hands. Conceivably, the Supreme Leader may be forced into dismissing Ahmadinejad, or establishing some form of power-sharing agreement.
Admittedly, neither is likely. Khamenei has too much to lose from such a devastating volte-face. Also, the protest movement's ability to organize and sustain numbers and duration in the face of such brutal violence is in doubt. But to despair is to ignore the dramatic opportunities for long-term change in Iran which are emerging, and which the international community must be prepared to respond to through a confident, coherent policy of engagement.
If Ahmadinejad is to remain in power for four more years, then the Iranian administration will have to offer certain tactical concessions to Mousavi and the millions of Iranians who voted for him. Khamenei will likely appease them with promises of a relaxation in the vetting process for future parliamentary elections, whereby more reformist candidates will be allowed to run. With this may come a loosening of the screening laws for presidential candidates, again allowing more reformists to run.
On their own, these minor institutional tweaks will make little difference. What they will do is embolden elites marshaling against Ahmadinejad. This may open the door to the possibility of dramatic political change over the coming months and years. Demonstrations and disobedience on the streets of Tehran are significant as symptoms rather than the causes of a wider political struggle between different factions of Iran's ruling clerical and governing elites.
Khamenei and Ahmadinejad represent the most hardcore elements of a conservative establishment, which in the current dispute has been opposed for the first time by a united front of more moderate conservatives including Mousavi, Rafsanjani and reformists like former president Mohammad Khatami. Together, these individuals represent some of the competing centers of political power in the Iranian political system, which are far more open towards social and political liberalization at home, and generally in favor of diplomatic engagement with the West.
The implications are clear. Neither Ahmadinejad's grip on power nor his credibility will be as secure as before. Moreover, some of his existing political base may abandon him, due to the divisive impact which he has on Iranian politics. He is also likely to become a more controversial figure abroad, where together with his remarks about the holocaust, recent events may isolate him even further.
If the West chooses to remain engaged with Iran, they may find that the weakened Ahmadinejad will have no choice but to be more accommodating towards their diplomatic overtures, as a means of outflanking the opposition. But certainly, the international community will be able to speak to and support alternative centers of power in the Iranian political system, which could determine Iran's future.
Whoever rules there in a month, a concerted dialogue with Iran will demonstrate that the West cares not only about containing Iran's regional military hegemony, but about the fate of its people. Moral and political support for the genuine expression of the will of the Iranian people will build respect for the West, at a time when its moral and political authority is at an ebb. Most importantly, it will offer hope.
Past policy of not talking with Iran has failed.
In fact, one factor which has weakened Ahmadinejad is Obama´s offer of dialogue with The Islamic Republic of Iran and his recent rapprochement with the Islamic world. Dialogue with Iran would not only weaken Ahmadinejad and his conservative allies further, it would also offer a good opportunity to address recent political and human rights abuses. America's rapprochement with Iran is one bear hug that could kill off 30 years of anti-US propaganda and Conservative battle cries. America should welcome it, as Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have genuine reason to fear it.
Meir Javedanfar is the coauthor of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran". Dex Torricke-Barton is a consultant at Global Expert Finder, which is a part of the UN Alliance of Civilizations project.