Reading tea leaves in Tehran

The protests reflect a wish to revamp the Islamic revolution. But how far?

Mass anger in Iran about the official results of a June 12 presidential election appears to be without end.

So, too, is the speculation among Iran-watchers over what the results of the protests might ultimately mean for the country's Islamic leadership, its nuclear ambitions, and Iran's ties to the rest of the world.

A peaceful rally Thursday in Tehran that drew nearly 100,000 people saw further demands for either a new vote or a total recount of the flawed election in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner – under highly suspect circumstances.

Foreign leaders such as President Obama can only wait patiently to see if this tense drama is merely a power struggle over a stolen election or whether Iran's awkward experiment in Islamic governance is due for a major overhaul.

The Muslim theocrats who now barely tolerate the will of the people in a constrained democracy appear caught off-guard by the protests in many major cities. Their use of violence against peaceful dissent and their attempts to cut Internet connections only confirm a disdain for democratic values.

Such actions also reveal an adherence by President Ahmadinejad and others to a messianic version of Islam that seeks to impose ultraconservative Muslim values on the faithful – but with little trust in the faithful's choice of their secular leaders.

This basic tension between an Islamic dictatorship and the popular principles of democracy has kept Iran in political turmoil and economic backwardness ever since the 1979 revolution. Yet even if the candidate backed by the protesters, Mir Hossein Mousavi, should somehow take power, it is likely the country would shift only slightly toward more tolerance of popular will and openness while the top clergy would retain ultimate powers.

Iran's experiment to discover Islam's role in a world largely driven by Western values such as civil liberty may only continue in a softer form.

Mr. Mousavi, after all, was a major player in the 1979 revolution and ruled as prime minister during the 1980s when the regime crushed its opponents. Only during his recent campaign did he appear to reflect the masses' wish for open elections, a free press, fair trials, and other essentials of modern society.

In a telling gesture, he held Monday's protests in Tehran's Azadi (freedom) Square instead of Enghelab (revolution) Square. Meanwhile, in his speeches, the president speaks of the "Islamic Government of Iran" and not its formal name, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Even before the 1989 death of the revolution's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a battle over the meaning of the revolution was waged between his underlings. His successor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, does not hold nearly the same religious authority or credentials. He has stumbled in his attempts to manipulate the different factions trying to interpret competing visions of Shiite Islam for Iran – and for the rest of the Middle East.

The apparent manipulation of the 2009 election in Ahmadinejad's favor only reveals more of this contest among the ruling elite and former elite. The protests of the past week and the iron-fisted response are Iran's way of trying to reconcile the inherent contradictions between democracy and a radical version of Islam that sees the sovereignty of the nation residing in God and a leader who rules in his name.

In the West, that sort of clash was resolved long ago, definitively in the American and then the French revolutions. Now the West can only stand by as Iran works out this competition of ideas.

A victory by Mousavi may only partially resolve that battle. But, to most Iranians, it may be a political battle worth fighting for.

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