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Which Iranian radicals will win?

Which Iranian radicals will win?

I’ve been one of those who have been skeptical that the Iranian opposition will be able to force the regime to accommodate its demands. Seeing few signs that the Islamic Republic’s apparatus of control — the security forces and the Basij militia — are fracturing, I’ve said repeatedly that I don’t think the Green Movement has the upper hand. I think that’s still true, even after today’s apparently massive protests.

That said, the dual radicalization that is going on helps the opposition more than it helps the regime. On the opposition side, the chants used to be about the election and ensuring a fair vote; now they’re about “death to the dictator” and “death to Khamenei,” the supreme leader. A friend of mine who monitors the Iranian media for a living told me a few weeks back that he’s seeing increasingly radical rhetoric in the press as well. So it’s not surprising that today’s protests quickly turned nasty as demonstrators fought back with stones, clubs, fire, pieces of sidewalk, and anything else they could get their hands on.

Meanwhile, the regime is showing its willingness to do whatever it takes to maintain control, even killing people on the Shiite holiday of Ashura, something even the shah never dared to do. The nephew of Mir Hossain Mousavi, the defrauded presidential candidate, was either brutally assassinated outside his home today or killed during the protests, depending on which account you believe. Former President Mohamed Khatami, a broadly popular reformist, was assaulted while giving a speech inside a mosque formerly frequented by Ayatollah Khomeini. And there are dozens of pictures of regime thugs beating women on the streets, in full view of everyone else.

At some point, you’d have to think,  some in the security forces will want to have no part of this dirty business, and start to defect to the opposition. So far, though, we only have unconfirmed rumors that this is happening:

There were scattered reports of police officers surrendering, or refusing to fight. Several videos posted to the Internet show officers holding up their helmets and walking away from the melee, as protesters pat them on the back in appreciation. In one photograph, several police officers can be seen holding their arms up, and one of them wears a bright green headband, the signature color of the opposition movement.

Keep watching for this phenomenon —  if it keeps up, a regime increasingly seen as illegitimate will have a hard time holding on. As Steve Walt warns us, though, the United States could very easily screw things up, for instance by implementing gasoline sanctions that will hurt Iran’s people more than the regime. The U.S. Congress is gearing up to pass such sanctions after the holiday recess, and the Iranian government seems dead set against compromising over the nuclear issue, so I’m not very optimistic that the right decisions are going to be made.

AFP/Getty Images