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Iran Is Burning in Revolution; Not Recognizing It Can Lead to Calamity

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On Sunday, protesters marked the annual Shiite holiday of Ashoura and mourning of Imam Hossein's death in his battle against a dictator by engaging in widespread protests against Iran's own modern dictator. As I was on Skype talking to Iran, I could hear people chanting "Allah o Akbar" and "death to dictator" in the background. The regime responded to protests by opening fire, killing as many as ten people (the latest figure at the time this piece is published). One of those was none other than the nephew of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist presidential candidate in the last election. Seyyed Ali Mousavi was executed in front of his house by a single shot from close range. His family has been banned from holding a funeral.

As continued protests in Iran following the rigged presidential election in June pass the six month mark, some in the policy circles have finally begun to wonder whether the resilience and persistence of Iranian protesters in the face of repression, rape, torture and executions is Iran's Berlin wall moment. These sentiments are, of course, refreshing since the policy establishment all but completely dropped the conversation about the prospects of major change in Iran as soon as the mainstream media stopped its coverage of events there because Michael Jackson died.

But the fact is that policymakers are once again one step behind in the game. Here is the fact: the Iranian regime is facing the most sustained, powerful and expanding challenge to its authority than it has ever faced, and it is miserably failing to contain it. Iranians have proven to be unlike protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 or monks in Burma in 2007. Whereas repression put a complete and almost immediate stop to protests and uprisings in those instances, Iranians seem to have lost the ability to fear, responding to increased repression and violence with higher numbers and more force, determination and resolve. These facts should no longer leave any room to doubt this simple fact: this is the beginning of the end. The Iranian regime as we know it has come to an end, and by the time violence and protests subside in Iran, the remaining system will be fundamentally different than what is currently in place.

What is critical to note is that while the rigging of the election was what sparked this massive movement, the fire that has sustained that spark is burning from a desire for a change that is a far deeper and fundamental than anything either one of the two reformist presidential candidates -- Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi -- have promised. While some continue to be outraged about the election, Iranian protesters are now challenging the fundamental aspects of the Islamic Republic through their slogans and actions.

This fact should make the international community no longer question the inevitable toppling of the political system in Iran, but think about what will come in its place. The reality is that unlike many successful popular movements, such as Poland's Solidarity Movement under Lech Walesa in 1989 or Iran's own revolution in 1979 under Ayatollah Khomeini, the green movement has turned into a headless dragon. The two reformist candidates who originally had some control over the planning of protests no longer have such control. Regular Iranians are now using social media websites, such as Facebook and blogs, to propose plans for protests. Within a few days, millions of people learn about the next big protest. When the day arrives, they gather in the streets throughout Iran, begin the chants and engage the security forces. The protests seem centrally organized, except that they are fundamentally organic and without central strategic or political leadership or clear short-term and long-term objectives. People simply just show up, chant and throw rocks.

Many in the international community seem to use this lack of leadership as an excuse to not take the movement seriously. But the fact is the movement's lack of leadership doesn't make this massive popular movement any less powerful. But what it does is to require more -- rather than less -- external involvement.

Why should the international community get involved? Think about what would happen if enough individuals from the security forces -- army and Sepah (Revolutionary Guard) -- and basij defect and join the opposition. That would tip the balance and lead to the toppling of the regime. There will be a massive power vacuum previously filled by powerful and repressive central institutions. Karroubi and Mousavi will gain momentum, but they are likely to prove ineffective in holding the country together because their promises of reform are neither wide-reaching enough to satisfy the Iranians--most of whom deeply desire secular democracy--nor will they be able to garner enough loyalty from the former members of the security forces. If a power vacuum remains, unsavory groups such as the Mujahedin-e Khalgh (the violent, Islamic communist group that has rightly been declared a terrorist organization by the Untied States) will be able to manipulate the vacuum and capture control over the country.

In the meantime, the vacuum can lead to secessionist movements throughout Iran gaining momentum. Those with a long-held desire for independence in the two Northwest provinces of Western and Eastern Azerbaijan may take the opportunity to make one last attempt to fulfill those ambitions. Meanwhile, the large Kurdish region in the West of the country may pursue the same path, motivating Kurds in Northern Iraq and the violent PKK separatist group in Southern Turkey to join forces to finally establish Kurdistan as a national entity. This could have a devastating effect on stability in both Turkey and Iraq (the only two secular democracies in the Middle East).

Meanwhile, Baluchis' pursuit of independence in the Southeastern province of Sistan-o-Baluchistan could create a safe haven for soon-to-be displaced Taliban from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Such a safe haven could force the United States to expand its military operations into Iranian soil and make the fulfillment of its recently renewed commitment to rooting out the Taliban and departure from the region infinitely harder. If Iran develops a nuclear warhead before its collapse, the consequences of loose nukes in the middle of mayhem could prove to be a nightmare.

The fact is, no one knows what will happen when the Iranian regime collapses because everyone seems focused on the collapse. But that is precisely why the international community, and the United States, needs to get engaged. The fact is that it was thirty years ago that President Carter visited the late shah of Iran and declared Iran an "island of stability" while the shah was wiping his eyes. He wasn't feeling emotional; his eyes were burning because of the tear gas his army was using on the protesters. It goes without saying that no one wants to see another anti-American regime in Iran following the current one. If that's not what we want, then we must stand up with the protesters when it counts.

What should the international community do is the subject of next piece, but this should suffice to establish that the international community can no longer sit back and watch as Iran burns.

Update: President Obama issued this statement this afternoon about the situation in Iran.

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