Events in Iran yesterday showed the determination of both the regime and the opposition, but should also provide a lesson for Western governments: unless the outside world aids the opposition, the regime could continue to rule indefinitely through brutal force without an inch of reform to the system.
The regime was able to show its strength, which seemed greater than in the past; millions of supporters came out to cheer for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government. Sure, they were bused in and paid bribes for their support. Nonetheless, it is clear that the regime has a solid constituency, which is often underestimated by the West. Dissidents in the Green movement – undeterred by gunfire and tear gas – also proved they are in it for the long haul, even though their numbers seem to have dwindled compared with past protests.
This confrontation has now become the status quo in Iran, one that could continue for the foreseeable future. The Green movement and its symbolic leadership seems unlikely to force a political compromise with the state. Despite serious defections to their camp by even conservative political elites and clerics, they do not control the military apparatus. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that, for now, a resolution to the crisis will not be found on the streets.
One strategy to break this impasse could be if Western governments found ways to empower the opposition movement. Over time, if the presence of protesters on the streets grew larger and their movement more broad-based, the pressure could force the regime to make political compromises. The thinking within the Obama administration and other Western governments has been that aiding the opposition would cause the Iranian regime to refuse to cooperate in nuclear negotiations. But the diplomatic track has, in any case, gone dry.
As was clear yesterday the regime is fighting the power of the Green movement by shutting down the internet, which the state controls. Iranians are reporting that the internet is slow or not functioning at all, particularly Google. The Iranian government is the only internet service provider in the country, and as such, has total control over internet speeds. Text messages, run by the state through the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-owned companies, were also blocked yesterday. In the past, these mobile phone services were used by the green movement to plan protests and share updates on where police and militia were cracking down on protesters.
Some opposition figures want the West to provide technical assistance to run and maintain anti-government websites and enable them to communicate when the regime blocks internet sites and social networks. They want, for example, anti-filtering software which would be immune to government interference.
Western governments could also pressure foreign firms, such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Siemens, not to sell telecommunications technology to Iran and to refuse to ship technology that has already been purchased.
The reformists are searching not for grand gestures from Western governments but modest steps, particularly those that would address the lack of human rights and the absence of political liberalisation. The hardliners might be more inclined to reach a historic compromise, which would be far more beneficial to Iranian society and the world than a military dictatorship under the control of Revolutionary Guards.
The writer is an Iran analyst at The Century Foundation and editor of www.insideIRAN.org