The Coming Showdown for Democracy in Iran; West Could Boost Opposition's Impact on 2013 Elections
Byline: Ilan Berman, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
This year has been widely hailed as a year of decision on Iran - a moment when Western powers will need to make some hard choices about how far they are actually prepared to go to stop Iran's march toward developing a nuclear weapon. The coming months are shaping up to be deeply significant for another reason as well. This summer, Iranians will go to the polls to elect a new president. That contest, though sure to be stage-managed, nonetheless will mark a milestone in the long and arduous struggle between the reigning regime in Tehran and its beleaguered political opposition.
The outlook is grim. Some 3A' years after they forcefully emerged in response to the rigged re-election of current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the anti-regime elements collectively known as the Green Movement are in disarray. Inattention from the West and massive, sustained repression on the part of the Iranian regime has succeeded in marginalizing and fragmenting the country's opposition, leaving it struggling to remain relevant.
So much so, in fact, that the main political contest in Iran of late has not been between the regime and its political opposition at all. Rather, it has been within Iran's hard-line camp itself, where Mr. Ahmadinejad and his followers have squared off with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the country's traditional clerical elite. Over the past few months, even that tug of war has been largely decided. In Iran's March 2012 parliamentary elections, Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters were routed in what amounted to an enduring confirmation of the supreme leader's political dominance.
The status quo isn't necessarily permanent, however. The Islamic republic increasingly finds itself in dire economic straits. Thanks to both Western sanctions and domestic fiscal mismanagement, recent months have witnessed a virtual collapse of Iran's national currency, soaring inflation and widening grass-roots discontent within the Islamic republic. Regime leaders have responded with a plan for fiscal austerity entailing bans on luxury goods and various other belt-tightening measures. Yet given Iran's economic predicament - and the likelihood of still more sanctions from the United States and Europe - the Iranian regime shortly will need to pare back extensive (and expensive) subsidies on everything from housing to foodstuffs in order to remain afloat. In the process, it will risk upsetting the delicate social compact by which it has historically maintained its hold on power.
Iran's ayatollahs understand this very well, even if observers in the West do not. …