This year has been widely hailed as a "year of decision" on Iran — a moment when Western powers will need to make some hard choices about how far they are actually prepared to go to stop Iran's march toward developing a nuclear weapon. The coming months are shaping up to be deeply significant for another reason as well. This summer, Iranians will go to the polls to elect a new president. That contest, though sure to be stage-managed, nonetheless will mark a milestone in the long and arduous struggle between the reigning regime in Tehran and its beleaguered political opposition.
The outlook is grim. Some 3 1/2 years after they forcefully emerged in response to the rigged re-election of current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the anti-regime elements collectively known as the Green Movement are in disarray. Inattention from the West and massive, sustained repression on the part of the Iranian regime has succeeded in marginalizing and fragmenting the country's opposition, leaving it struggling to remain relevant.
So much so, in fact, that the main political contest in Iran of late has not been between the regime and its political opposition at all. Rather, it has been within Iran's hard-line camp itself, where Mr. Ahmadinejad and his followers have squared off with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the country's traditional clerical elite. Over the past few months, even that tug of war has been largely decided. In Iran's March 2012 parliamentary elections, Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters were routed in what amounted to an enduring confirmation of the supreme leader's political dominance.
The status quo isn't necessarily permanent, however. The Islamic republic increasingly finds itself in dire economic straits. Thanks to both Western sanctions and domestic fiscal mismanagement, recent months have witnessed a virtual collapse of Iran's national currency, soaring inflation and widening grass-roots discontent within the Islamic republic. Regime leaders have responded with a plan for fiscal austerity entailing bans on luxury goods and various other belt-tightening measures. Yet given Iran's economic predicament — and the likelihood of still more sanctions from the United States and Europe — the Iranian regime shortly will need to pare back extensive (and expensive) subsidies on everything from housing to foodstuffs in order to remain afloat. In the process, it will risk upsetting the delicate social compact by which it has historically maintained its hold on power.
Iran's ayatollahs understand this very well, even if observers in the West do not. Thus, although the slate of official candidates for the presidency is still being formed, it is already clear that it will be stuffed with establishment hard-liners loyal to Iran's clerical status quo. Further pruning is also likely, since various institutions within the Islamic republic have broad power to disqualify candidates deemed insufficiently in line with official dogma.
Still, the Iranian regime isn't leaving anything to chance. In recent days, in clear signs of regime nervousness, authorities in Tehran have sought to further stack the electoral deck in their favor. Last month, the country's powerful Council of Guardians mandated the creation of a new supervisory board to oversee the upcoming elections — and prevent Mr. Ahmadinejad and his followers from meddling in the polls. More recently, regime authorities announced plans to establish a new, specialized police force tasked with ensuring "secure elections" and compelling "high public participation." Electoral "reforms" now being considered by the government, if enacted, are guaranteed to steer the process in the direction of the regime's preferred candidate, whoever he ends up being.
All this suggests that despite official bluster to the contrary, Iran's political scene is still very much in play. As a result, this summer's presidential election is shaping up to be a do-or-die moment for Iran's pro-democracy forces. Yet in order to stand a chance of competing for influence with Iran's entrenched clerical establishment, a real, viable opposition movement will need to coalesce in coming months.
The West has a major stake in seeing that it does. After a year that saw a dramatic expansion of economic pressure, U.S. and European powers have now returned to the negotiating table with Tehran. Yet it is highly unlikely that talks, or even additional sanctions, will succeed in significantly altering the Iranian regime's current strategic trajectory.
For that to happen, Iran will need a more pluralistic, more accountable polity — one that sees itself as a part of the global community, rather than as an insurgent challenge to it. It is abundantly clear that such outward-looking sentiments still exist within Iran, despite the regime's best efforts to eradicate them. After years of domestic repression and international neglect, Iran's democratic opposition must be nurtured back to health by America and its allies through broad political and financial support. If it is to have a prayer of steering Iran away from confrontation with the West, such help will need to come soon.