As the Tehran leadership prepares to go to the wire in its confrontation with the international community over the nuclear issue, one thing is clear: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is emerging with his position in the Khomeinist establishment strengthened.
Just a few weeks ago, we were told that Ahmadinejad's star was on the wane, that 'moderate mullahs' had persuaded 'Supreme Guide' Ali Khamenei to restrain the firebrand president. Yet last week, as the U.N. Security Council's ultimatum to the Islamic Republic expired, it was Ahmadinejad who gave the regime's final word.
Addressing a provincial crowd, the president announced that Iran's nuclear program has no reverse gear. The Islamic Republic would stop uranium enrichment only if all nations with a nuclear industry - that is to say, some 30 countries, including all permanent members of the Security Council - did so.
Ahmadinejad has the great merit of seeing the problem for what it really is.
Fantasists such as Javier Solana, the European Union's ineffective foreign-policy czar, have tried to present the Islamic Republic's uranium-enrichment program as a technical issue. Others, like French President Jacques Chirac, have advised acceptance of what they regard as a fait accompli.
For Ahmadinejad, however, the issue is political in the grand sense of the term - with nothing less at stake than the survival of the Khomeinist regime.
The 1979 revolution had a tripartite slogan: 'independence, liberty and Islamic government' - and the regime that emerged tried to build its legitimacy on that basis. Over the last quarter-century, however, it has failed to deliver.
In practical terms, Iran today is more dependent on the outside world than before the Khomeinists seized power. In 1977, Iran imported 11 percent of the food it needed; today, it imports almost half. In 1977, Iran was an overall exporter of crude oil and petroleum products; today, it imports more than 40 percent of its gasoline.
In 1977, there were no outside forces in the Gulf. Today, the United States and its allies control the waterway. Iranian ships passing through the Gulf, and aircraft flying over it, have to clear their routes with the Americans.
As for liberty, most Iranians today know that they are much less free, especially in social and cultural terms, than they were before the mullahs seized power. A recent study by the International Monetary Fund shows Iran experiencing the largest brain-drain of any country in history, largely because the educated elites are fleeing an oppressive atmosphere.
The slogan's third part, Islamic government, has also remained a chimera. Many genuinely religious Iranians, including some Shiite clerics, see Khomeinism as an 'evil innovation' (bed'aah) because it violates a fundamental principle of the faith by pretending that it can create a truly Islamic government before the return of the Hidden Imam.
Ahmadinejad is conscious of the Islamic Republic's massive loss of legitimacy in the early 1990s (at least). But he knows that he can't restore it by offering greater liberty: Any loosening of the regime's tight grip on power could open a Pandora's box of political, sectarian and ethnic grievances and demands that no undemocratic regime can deal with.
That leaves the radicals with two options: thickening the Islamic coloring of the regime, and emphasizing its claim of independence.
Ahmadinejad has tried to thicken the regime's religious coloring by casting himself in the role of the proverbial Islamic ghazi (holy warrior) who will ride his white horse into Jerusalem to liberate it from the infidel.
The regime's claim of independence is best illustrated by its refusal to kowtow to the diktats of the major powers, especially the United States. The nuclear program would not have been an issue in Iran just two or three years ago - most Iranians knew nothing of the program and the controversy it had provoked. But today, largely thanks to Ahmadinejad's constant hammering of the theme during his ceaseless provincial tours, most Iranians are familiar with the issue.
And, because Ahmadinejad has presented the dispute as an attempt by the great powers to deny Iran nuclear energy, many Iranians, while suspicious of the regime's motives, nevertheless support its position.
Ahmadinejad's supporters hailed his election as the second Khomeinist revolution, in the hope that the cooling embers of Islamist passion could be fanned again into raging flames. They have promoted such ideas as a 'clash of civilizations,' in which Khomeinist Iran would provide the hard core of a new Islamic 'superpower' to challenge the United States and offer humanity an alternative to the existing international order.
Thanks to Ahmadinejad, the nuclear issue has become a regime-change issue.
If the Khomeinist regime emerges victorious from the current confrontation, it would move to a higher degree of radicalism - thus, in effect, becoming a new regime. The radical faction would be able to purge the rich and corrupt mullahs by promoting a new generation of zealots linked with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the security services. It would also move onto the offensive in the region, seeking to reshape it after the Khomeinist revolution's geostrategic interests.
If, on the other hand, the regime is forced to back down on this issue, the radical moment would fade, while the many enemies of the regime regroup either to topple it or to change it beyond recognition, as Deng Xiaoping did with China's Maoist regime.
We are witnessing the start of what could be a long, complicated conflict - not a prelude to the sharp, short exchange that many expect. What is at stake is the future not only of Iran but also of the place of American power in the world. This showdown cannot end without a clear winner and loser.