Just a week ago, Iran was on the high road to becoming a regional nuclear power whose influence rippled beyond the Middle Eat and Gulf as far as China, India and Pakistan.
All that ended on Friday, June 12, three hours after the presidential election polls closed.
By then, spiritual ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had had enough. After furiously watching challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi stacking up ballots and finally claiming to have swept up 65 percent of the vote, they shot back with an announcement that it was the incumbent who had won a 66-landslide victory, not his challenger, and he would be serving a second term.
If a single moment in time can be said to have been the turning-point in the fate of any nation, Iran's Islamic empire may be said to have started folding in the dying hours of June 12.
And as the week wore on, more and more building blocks dropped off the edifice.
This staged breakup recalls the collapse of the Soviet Russian Empire in 1991. There, a system eaten away by rot from the mid-1980s had its last gasp at a given moment: It was when a civil war confronted a central government incapable of resistance because it was paralyzed by corruption and infiltrated by foreign intelligence agencies which had made themselves at home inside the system.
A similar situation exists in Iran.
Will Iran find a Yeltsin?
The current pandemonium caught Iran's political, clerical, military and intelligence executive bodies paralyzed and rudderless with no steady hands at the helm. Iran's murky corridors of power were abruptly opened to the glare of unaccustomed publicity exposing the internal divides among the clerical factions.
The regime has been weighed down for years by factional warfare and the burden of corruption. Elites with business empires, like the Rafsanjanis, have sucked the national coffers dry.
Furthermore, a flock of outside and foreign clandestine bodies and subversive elements are out and about aggravating the turmoil and confusion. They are armed with the mighty Internet.
This combination, a historic first, has made for a multiple weapon which is deadlier for government control than a ballistic missile.
Iran may tip over into civil war and chaos, or the regime may save itself by bringing forward a new face acceptable to the masses who are marching to the opposition leader's band. Judging from historic precedents, Mousavi, himself a former prime minister and product of the Islamic Revolution, is no more than a stopgap for the evolving uprising until a successor appears.
The still unanswered questions are what sort of uprising is in store and what sort of regime will be put in place. Neither need necessarily end theocratic rule. But will the new leaders be able to pull Iran back from the brink as Boris Yeltsin did when he climbed on top of a tank in Moscow? Or is Iran in for a bloody factional struggle that will tear the country apart for years?
Should the US push Iran over or let it bleed slowly?
This struggle would be brutal and not limited to the main squares of Tehran and universities but encompass Iran's big cities, Isfahan, Tabriz, Mashhad and Yazd. Iran's minority regions would not be quiescent: The repressed Arabs of oil-rich Khuzestan, the Baluchis in the east and the Kurds in the north-west will use any opening to defy the repressive Shiite government.
For any hope of stability, the new leaders will have to emulate the Vladimir Putin of ten years ago and act fast to put the economy on its feet – first of all by repairing the rundown oil and gas industries and bringing them up to full production.
The main dilemma facing US president Barack Obama is not how to walk the fine line between the rival Ayatollah Khamenei and Mir Hossein Mousavi, or try unconvincingly to prove that America is not meddling in Iran's internal affairs. What he must decide is whether to give the theocratic regime another push to bring it tumbling down all at once, or let it hemorrhage slowly from internal wounds.
What serves Washington's interests better: a puissant Tehran under a new government or a slowly crumbling regime?
The White House, as far as we know, is still deliberating which way to go. Only six months in office, it is probably one of the toughest calls Obama will ever have to face. His decision will affect America's place in the world for many years to come.
Iran's nuclear assets – potential prey for terrorists
A prime consideration is how the collapse of the Iranian regime will bear on its nuclear program, which is far more advanced than acknowledged in the West, and its missile arsenals.
(In a separate item in this issue, we offer testimony from Australia on how the Soviet arsenals were rifled when that superpower collapsed.)
This week, as the Pakistani army proclaimed a major offensive against al Qaeda-Taliban haunts in Waziristan, the administration's concern for Pakistan's nuclear stocks diminished but correspondingly shot up over Iran's nuclear and missile assets, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report. Suddenly, it became urgent to think about their fate in the event of central government crashing in Tehran or a civil war plunging the country into chaos.
Iran has accumulated a mountain of nuclear data and a large staff of scientists working inter alia on enriched uranium. These resources must be prevented at all costs from falling into the wrong hands, such as al Qaeda or Taliban. Facing opposition in Pakistan, the two terrorist organizations might find Iran a tempting proposition.
Al Qaeda's tacticians have long shown an aptitude for operational opportunism; more than once they proved able to relocate jihadi manpower to new arenas more rapidly than the transfer of Western forces.
Civil strife in the Islamic Republic or the weakening of its central government would present the jihadis with a new and seductive objective.