This question, posed by General David Petraeus in 2003 during the initial stages of the Iraq invasion, is the key question in Iran today. How will the extraordinary mass protest against the Iranian Presidential announced election outcome end? In a whimper? In a bang?
The short answer is that no one knows. The better answer is that we may all know quite soon. The prayer sermon of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at Tehran University today, Friday June 19th, laid down a gauntlet. He accepted, even praised as a blessing from God, the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and. He ordered the protesters to cease their protesting and accept the results or be responsible for the violence to follow.
The mass opposition wisely did not attend the speech in order to avoid violence. And they are unlikely to come out in large numbers tonight knowing that the thuggish Basji militia has been using the cover of darkness to attack, provoke and instigate violence. But tomorrow may tell the tale. The opposition is likely to hold a mass rally starting in the afternoon to react to Khamenei's speech and the result of the meeting of the Guardian Council with the protesting candidates. It is almost certain that the Council will do nothing to meet the opposition demands.
The struggle in Iran is on two levels. The obvious one is on the streets where mass protests against the announced election results, brilliantly organized as a grass roots movement -- using cell phones, Twitter and other modern technological wizardry -- appears to have no known leadership. Mir Hossein Mousavi and other aggrieved presidential candidates appear to be symbols of the discontent, not leaders of the movement. It is unlikely that the protests would stop if Mousavi asked.
The other level of conflict is among the clerics. There is a definite split among the top level of the clerics although any attempt to characterize the two camps in western parlance is sure to be misleading. But some clearly want to emphasize the first word and others the second of the nation's name: Islamic Republic. Suffice it to say that this is unprecedented and may present the greatest long term challenge to the current political structure.
Now we come to some forks in the road. First, will the Basji be unleashed on the demonstrators during daylight marking a major escalation? Will the more disciplined Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who has been given security responsibility for Tehran, be used instead of or in addition to the Basji to generate overwhelming force? And will there be funerals soon, in the Shia tradition, for the 8 or 13 or 21 students killed so far by the Basji? These could turn out to be very bloody. Will mass protests continue in other Iranian cities? And will the IRGC hold together or will some individuals or units refuse to fire on the protestors.
I fear the answer to Gen. Petraeus question when applied to Iran is "badly" at least for now. The Supreme leader cannot be seen as weak, which allowing the demonstrations to continue would be. Failing to act could lead to his removal. The dissenting clerics will not challenge his authority yet because they know if they do it will strengthen Ahmadinejad and lead to a purge. So, once again, the dream of Iranians for democracy that has flourished since 1906 will be dashed. The most likely outcome is for suppression of the demonstrations and it will be bloody.
I hope I am wrong.
And the saddest point of all is that the United States can do nothing to stop the coming tragedy. But we should loudly condemn the violence when it comes and offer refuge to any who escape the country. And t the dream of a more representative and responsible government will not die and we have to devise a strategy to help it survive and succeed the next time.