FOR THE UNITED States, popular revolt in hostile, authoritarian states poses a special dilemma. Americans instinctively sympathize with those struggling for freedom; their triumph promises a new regime both more democratic and friendlier to us. Yet, unless the United States is prepared to risk direct intervention, it has no ready means to ensure their victory. If Washington denounces a tyrant's repression too loudly, it risks charges of imperialist meddling; a tepid response undercuts this country's moral standing. There may be a need to do business with whatever government emerges. From the crushing of Hungary's revolt in 1956 to the Prague Spring of 1968 to Tiananmen Square in 1989 to Burma in 2007, U.S. policymakers have found it difficult if not impossible to strike a satisfactory balance.
Now comes Tehran 2009. In the greatest display of popular protest in Iran since that country's 1979 revolution, hundreds of thousands of people have poured into the streets to protest the allegedly fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They have been met with gunfire and beatings; seven people have been confirmed dead so far. The Obama administration has tried to register revulsion without upsetting hoped-for talks about Iran's nuclear weapons program and its support for terrorism. Instead of a full-throated denunciation of fraud and repression, Mr. Obama waited a couple of days before making calibrated remarks in which he offered respect for Iranian sovereignty but added that the regime's violent response "is a concern to me and . . . to the American people."
We can understand the reluctance to sound a tougher note. The United States has few ways to help the opposition -- and it may have to deal with whoever wins the current struggle. But, however the crisis ends, it may require rethinking of the administration's Iran strategy. There is a connection between the regime's internal character and its external conduct. To be sure, the Iranian opposition seems to be trying to change the course of the Islamic Republic rather than overthrow it; Mr. Ahmadinejad's opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is a veteran of the 1979 revolution who promised a restoration to its true principles. Neither man is a purely independent actor. Mr. Ahmadinejad fronts for the country's true powers, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards; Mr. Mousavi represents a rival faction centered on former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Still, many Iranians saw Mr. Mousavi, who has denounced Mr. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, as an alternative to the economic decay and international isolation wrought by the current regime. Mr. Mousavi is, potentially at least, a more reasonable negotiating partner for the United States. If Mr. Mousavi succeeds in getting a new election and ultimately wins the presidency, Mr. Khamenei's power would be shaken and new opportunities for engagement with the West might open up. But if Mr. Khamenei imposes Mr. Ahmadinejad for another four years, it could portend an even more belligerent Iranian foreign policy. By crushing Mr. Mousavi and the movement he has inspired, the supreme leader would show that he is determined to hold on to power -- and, probably, to terrorism and nuclear ambitions -- no matter what anyone thinks, even his own people.