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In the face of violent repression by Iranian security forces, the supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi are revolting against last week's blatantly rigged presidential election. As they demonstrate in the streets, a second, equally crucial battle is unfolding behind closed doors among the country's power brokers, who have splintered over the regime's decision to subvert the modest democratic guarantees that have helped sustain Iran's revolutionary system for the past 30 years.
The convergence of these two challenges -- mass mobilization and elite infighting -- has produced the most serious threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic since the early years of its existence. However the election turmoil plays out, it has irreparably shattered the Islamic Republic's most important underlying assets -- elite cooperation and popular participation -- and left the state dependent upon a vicious but inherently narrow power base.
Unrest within Iran is not particularly new -- since 1979, when an Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah, the country has faced ethnic rebellions, labor actions, student protests, economic riots, and a range of other political agitation. In some cases -- most notably the student-led protests in July 1999 -- these episodes managed to shake the political elite. The regime, however, has always managed to contain such political flare-ups. For most Iranians, life went on as usual, albeit somewhat uneasily.
The movement taking shape on Iran's streets today, however, is a profound departure from those in the recent past. The eruptions of the 1990s and early 2000s were small-scale events, limited to a particular interest group or neighborhood. The current turmoil has engaged Iranians on a scale that transcends age, ethnic background, income level, or geographic location. Protests are erupting not just in Tehran, but in cities such as Isfahan, Shiraz, and Tabriz. The unprecedented scope of the unrest is a response to the profound miscalculation of the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- who apparently decided to use an election as a means of orchestrating a power grab. In doing so, they roused Iran's 46 million voters, who value Iran's long constitutional legacy as well as their own limited democratic rights under the theocratic state.