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Published: Tuesday, 7/28/2009

Ferment in Iran

LESS than two months after the Iranian presidential election, opposition still stirs in the streets and even more intensely behind the scenes.

At the same time, what is occurring might mislead those who are crafting American policy toward Iran into making false assumptions about the significance of the activity.

The leadership crisis in Iran is taking place within a tight circle of leaders, all of whom are either Shiite clergy or observant religiously oriented figures. There would not have been much difference in Iranian policy in general, including the country's approach to its nuclear program, regardless of who won the presidential contest, incumbent victor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the losing challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Both have roughly similar attitudes toward dialogue with the United States. Both favor it, although given Mr. Ahmadinejad's sometimes crazy record, including Holocaust denial, it is more difficult for senior American officials to imagine meaningful talks with him.

Perhaps the most interesting political question in Iran now is whether Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is sufficiently embarrassed by Mr. Ahmadinejad's antics to figure out a way to get rid of him while risking the appearance of having weakly caved to pressure from the citizenry.

A certain amount of agitation and violence is a normal part of Iranian political life. The stirrings gain some resonance from the "color" revolutions that have taken place in recent years in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but, basically, they are not new for Iran and may not mean much at all.

That is not to say that street protests and arrests are the Iranian equivalent of an argument in a coffee house, but it is important to recall that the SAVAK, the police of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, were notoriously brutal. Iranians continue rightly to remind Americans that the United Kingdom and the United States overthrew their prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953. It is also important to remember, however, that Mr. Mossadegh's predecessor as prime minister, Ali Razmara, was assassinated in a mosque two years earlier.

Finally, in U.S. policy terms, it may be the case that the sooner the turbulence in Iranian politics ends, the better the prospects become for fruitful U.S. dialogue with Iran. War is out of the question.

Seeing value in stability in Iran is not to discourage political opposition to the current configuration of Iranian leadership. It is, to the contrary, to observe that dialogue between the United States and Iran can take place even while there is tussling going on in Tehran. That ferment, in fact, tends to make the Iranian government more responsive to popular wishes, which clearly favor a positive U.S. dialogue.

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