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As Ahmadinejad bullies the West, unrest grows in Iran

Wednesday, December 23, 2009; A18

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD of Iran says that the government over which he presides is "ten times" stronger than it was a year ago. Therefore, Mr. Ahmadinejad announced Tuesday, the Islamic Republic will defy the Obama administration's year-end deadline for accepting a U.N.-drafted proposal to trade Iran's enriched uranium stockpile for less dangerous nuclear fuel. Iran is "not afraid" of the sanctions that the United States and its allies may have in store, Mr. Ahmadinejad boasted, adding: "If Iran wanted to make a bomb, we would be brave enough to tell you."

Yet Mr. Ahmadinejad may protest too much. Judging by one measure of regime strength -- popular support -- the dictatorship of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which Mr. Ahmadinejad serves, is as weak as ever, if not weaker. Mr. Ahmadinejad delivered his outburst after hundreds of thousands of regime opponents filled the city of Qom to mourn the death of Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, a founder of the Islamic Republic who had more recently turned into a dissenter. The huge, nonviolent crowds, and their chants ("Dictator, this is your last message: The people of Iran are rising!"), proved that there is still plenty of life in the popular movement that Mr. Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards provoked by engineering Mr. Ahmadinejad's fraudulent reelection in June. Given the horrific extent of the repression against that movement, its continued energy is nothing short of inspiring.

Mr. Montazeri's adoption as a martyr to that movement may also show that its goals go beyond the democratization of Iranian society. To be sure, Mr. Montazeri, who was slated to succeed revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini until the two fell out over Mr. Montazeri's opposition to repression, is best known for his efforts to reconcile Shia Islam and democracy. In recent years he had called for relaxing the "guardianship of the clergy" over Iranian political life. He had spoken in favor of equal rights for Iran's persecuted Bahais, a religious minority.

But Mr. Montazeri had also linked the democratization of Iran to its peaceful coexistence with the West. Before his death, he apologized for the 1979 Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and -- undoubtedly most irritating to Mr. Khamenei -- opposed the regime's nuclear ambitions. "In light of the scope of death and destruction they bring," Mr. Montazeri wrote, "and in light of the fact that such weapons cannot be used solely against an army of aggression but will invariably sacrifice the lives of innocent people, even if these innocent lives are those of future generations, nuclear weapons are not permitted according to reason or Sharia [Islamic law]."

We would not underestimate the fact that a figure such as this can bring forth multitudes -- even in death -- while Mr. Ahmadinejad is reduced to unleashing his militia and shrieking at the West. The most momentous international event of 2009 was the uprising in Iran, and though the regime's collapse is not imminent, it is hardly unthinkable. President Obama is prudent to pursue a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions. But in doing so, he must not diminish the prospect that Iran's people might ultimately deliver both themselves and the world from the menace.

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