Patrick Cockburn: Disunity will damage but not destroy Iran

Is the revolution in Iran over before it began? Was it ever going to be a revolution? Will it leave the Iranian state permanently divided and weakened?

It was never likely that the mass rallies of Iranians protesting against the outcome of the presidential election and an official result showing that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a sweeping victory would turn into a revolutionary situation.

The protesters do not have a core of committed organisers seeking to overthrow the government. In 1978-79 in Iran, there was a network of clerics in the mosques and a number of left-wing parties who could keep staging rallies in the face of repression. The forces of the state were swamped by the number of people declaring they were willing to die.

Today, the repressive apparatus of the state in Iran has numbers, discipline and commitment on its side. Thousands of security officers reportedly filled the streets around Baharestan Square in front of the Iranian parliament building yesterday, while only a few hundred demonstrators ran the gauntlet of police and Basiji militia on their motorcycles. The green-coloured flags and ribbons that had been seen everywhere have vanished since last Friday, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, denounced the protesters and threatened to act against them.

But there are divisions within the Iranian political elite, and this is a serious matter for the future. Presumably the regime will now move to repress all forms of dissent for a long period, be the dissenters political leaders like Mirhossein Mousavi or the anti-government media.

Could life return to normal? Usually in the wake of political convulsions such as those seen over the past couple of weeks, commentators and observers say that "things will never be the same again". But other than a sustained increase in repression, it is not entirely clear what is going to change in Iran.

Those who were alienated from the regime before will become even more alienated. The numbers opposed to the government root and branch will increase. But conspiratorial resistance in the face of a proactive security service is exceptionally difficult to carry out. Most protesters will probably sink back into cynical apathy.

Many things are as yet unknown. There are, so far, suspicions but no proof that the presidential election was fixed in such a way as to alter the result.

Going by the official results, Mr Ahmadinejad received 24.5 million votes, or 62.6 per cent of the poll, to Mr Mousavi's 13.2 million, or 33.8 per cent. This is almost the same percentage as the President won in the run-off election in 2005 against the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Supposing the majority of Iranians do support Mr Ahmadinejad, then the government should in theory be able to continue on its way, blaming the violence on foreign spies, money and propaganda.

In the longer term, however, the legitimacy of the Islamic state has been damaged by such an open show of disunity and by the revelation that a large part of the population will take to the streets against the regime.