Dunsmore: Protest in Iran

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(HOST) The massive anti-government demonstrations in Iran began when millions of Iranians concluded that last week’s official presidential election results were fraudulent. This morning commentator and veteran ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore examines the significance of the protests.

(DUNSMORE) The longer the demonstrations continue, the more the crisis transcends the simple question of who will be the next Iranian president. At this point, no one knows how all this will end. But, regardless of how it does, what has happened this past week represents the greatest challenge to the clerics who run the Islamic Republic of Iran since the 1979 revolution – and especially to Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

After the largest anti-government demonstrations in thirty years, the Supreme Leader and his fellow mullahs have been deeply shaken by the scope of the people’s refusal to accept the official line that President Ahmadinejad won re-election. This is causing some cracks in the usually solid leadership as it faces the problem of getting the people off the streets so that stability can be restored. That is not as simple as it might seem.

A completely totalitarian regime such as Communist China decided to use tanks and troops to squelch the protest in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago – because that was the traditional Chinese way of re-establishing order. The old men of the Party had little knowledge of modern technologies and never expected the whole world would witness their violent crackdown.

The clerics of Iran apparently have a better understanding of how the Internet and social networks such as Twitter and Face Book are helping the protesters. The mullahs have expelled most foreign reporters, and they are trying to limit their people’s access to the new technologies – but they can’t totally shut down the Internet, and they realize that, with likely thousands of video-cameras on cell phones among the demonstrators, they could never get away with a Tiananmen-type massacre. The Chinese leaders did because they had near total control over their entire population. The mullahs do not have that kind of hold in Iran. So using the military to completely suppress mass demonstrations – which would inevitably be bloody – could actually risk the possibility of setting off a real revolution.

In the meantime, the Obama Administration is showing considerable skill by avoiding inflammatory rhetoric of the type proposed by critics such as Senator John McCain. It serves no useful purpose to threaten the Iranian regime.  That would simply give it a further excuse to blame America for interfering in Iran’s affairs, which could actually discredit the protest movement.

No matter when or how this crisis ends, the U.S. will still have to deal with Iran – just as it eventually resumed normal relations with China. And, regardless of who is president or Supreme Leader, there will still be disputes, especially over Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities.

But, contrary to the argument of those who want to bomb Iran to keep it from getting nuclear weapons –  supposedly because its leaders are an apocalyptic cult that would plunge the world into nuclear war – what we’ve seen this past week is that Iran’s theocrats are far from suicidal. In fact, they are apparently very keen on their own survival.

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