Iran has lost its window of opportunity to preserve the clerical system and avoid unimaginable bloodshed. The "Islamic" Republic of Iran is for all intents and purposes no more. It might have still been viable if the supreme leader had been replaced by a respected cleric and if new presidential elections had been held. But now, after all the bloodshed in the streets, after the accounts of innocent demonstrators being tortured and after the spectacle of the show trials, the position of each faction has hardened beyond compromise.
The supreme leader and the regime have decided to dig in their heels. On August 3, the supreme leader approved the new term for President Ahmadinejad as required under the constitution. Notably absent from the ceremony were former presidents and regime insiders Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, as well as Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the other main candidates in the recent presidential elections. On August 5, Ahmadinejad was formally confirmed and inaugurated for his second term as president.
All sides have signaled their commitment to fight on-the regime with in-your-face threats and bullets, former regime insiders with rhetoric and behind-the-scenes maneuverings, and ordinary citizens with the only weapons they have, protests and human sacrifice. Compromise is longer possible. In fact, each side has little choice but to fight on.
For the regime, the show trials in Tehran, which started on August 1, were another step in the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad-Revolutionary Guards coup that was plotted in the days before the June 12 election. Those on trial are mere pawns in the bigger picture. Their trials are signals to a wider audience. They are meant as a warning that the supreme leader is not the late shah. He has no compunction against violence. He has unleashed his thugs on anyone who does not fall in line. His men have killed and will continue to kill as needed to keep him at the helm in Iran.
The supreme leaders's warning is first and foremost directed at former presidents Hashemi and Khatami, and to presidential candidates Karroubi and Moussavi. The regime has tortured some of their close associates to build up a dossier against them. In fact they are the ones on trial, not the men who were paraded in front of cameras on August 1 for the world to see. The trumped-up and damning evidence is being compiled against these prominent opposition figures. They have heard some of the charges they will face in the near future if they fail to back down; and for sure there are more charges to come. These opposition figures are being given another "chance" to concede defeat. If they fail to do so, they will in time be arrested and the internal conflict will widen. The warning is also directed at the grand ayatollahs sitting in Qum. They are to understand that they are not beyond the supreme leader's reach. If powerful members of the regime can be attacked, then they too can be attacked with impunity, now that the supreme leader has all but abandoned the "Islamic" label.
The trials are also intended to intimidate any would-be protestors. Death awaits them on the streets of Iran. The regime is determined to frighten the citizenry into submission, something it has not been able to do so far in this conflict. Finally, Tehran is demonstrating to foreign powers, especially the United States, that it is in charge and that they should not pin their hopes on the opposition.
While the regime has dug in its heels, ironically it also seems to be preparing an exit strategy. Last week the Turkish media reported the confiscation by Turkish customs of around $18.5 billion ($11 billion in gold bars and $7.5 billion in $100 dollar bills) from several trucks leaving Iran and headed to an unknown destination. The Turkish prime minister, who has been locked in negotiations to borrow a fraction of that amount from the IMF, is reported to have seen this as manna from heaven. Unsurprisingly, the official Iranian media attributes this haul to a previously unheard of Iranian businessman, Ismail Safarian.
For the elite-former presidents and opposition candidates-there is no turning back. They have no choice but to fight on. They know full well that there is no place for them in this forever changed Iran, the Iran of a military dictatorship. They will be perceived as a threat. The ongoing trials of their supporters will lead to their own indictment. Those supporters may ultimately receive the supreme leader's magnanimous pardon, but theirs will be an unknown, surely dire fate. Their only option is to fight on. Only then might they have a chance of survival.
Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.