Five days of student protests in Iran's capital have brought a smile to the Bush administration. Will the ruling Islamic clerics soon be ousted by an Iranian people-power revolution?
Not likely. These latest protests, like those in 1999, which also turned violent, reveal more about the weakness of the reform movement than its strength. They are confined largely to universities, and incited mainly by Persian-language satellite broadcasts sent by exiles in Los Angeles. And the spark this time was a move to privatize universities, hardly the stuff to drive a revolution.
Still, Bush officials are right to ask if Iran's poor and burgeoning population of young people is finally fed up with theocratic rulers who allow only enough democracy to keep it from challenging their conservative social and political grip on the country.
Unlike with Iraq, which he has invaded, or North Korea, which he has tried to isolate through multilateral diplomacy, President Bush appears stumped on how to deal with an Iran that has a half-formed democracy and partially tolerates dissent.
Bush officials verbally support the dissent, but know that any material support for "regime change" would backfire. They haven't endorsed a Senate bill that would fund Iranian pro-democracy groups. Iran's clerics claim that covert US aid is already behind the protests; this allows them to whip up anti-American sentiment and send out thugs to attack students.
Mr. Bush already has Iran on the defensive in the United Nations, which has found that Iran's nuclear program violates international rules. And the US charges some Iranian leaders with supporting an Al Qaeda bombing in Saudi Arabia last month, in addition to Iran's long support for Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Rebellion in Iran may be years away, yet the US needs action soon. Iran might have a nuclear device within a few years. For now, the best course is direct diplomacy and urging other nations to push Iran for more democracy and an end to support for terrorists.