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In its own obtuse and menacing way, Friday's speech by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, was actually useful. Khamenei made it plain that he and the vast security establishment he heads have no intention of permitting anyone but his own favorite, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to become president. He issued a threat to the multitudes who have bravely and peacefully denounced alleged electoral fraud: "If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible." And he rehearsed tired conspiracy theories, blaming the historic unrest on "dirty Zionists," the United States and Britain. In so doing, Khamenei clarified the true nature of his regime and the true nature of the challenge it poses to the United States and the world.
That challenge is, and has been, a matter of intense debate. For some in the United States, including the last administration, the very notion of negotiating with the Islamic republic was suspect. The Obama administration came to office promising a new approach, one that would treat Iran's external conduct separately from its internal character. An approach that did not threaten the Islamic republic's claim to power, the administration reasoned, would stand a better chance of restraining its nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism.
Now a previously discounted factor - the Iranian people - has arisen and scrambled that expectation. When Khamenei said Friday that "the enemies (of Iran) are targeting the Islamic establishment's legitimacy by questioning the election and its authenticity before and after" the vote, he was backhandedly admitting that the people's protests pose a direct challenge to him and the system he has led for two decades. Khamenei's words will probably not satisfy his citizenry, though they might cow it. His speech's impact on the Iranian opposition will begin to show within the next few days. There are two possible results: either a change of (or in) the regime, or its perpetuation through force on a base of domestic support so narrow it would increasingly justify its existence through external conflict.
Either way, President Obama's policy cannot remain unaffected. As of today, it remains tantalizingly possible that he may be able to engage a new and more reasonable Iranian government. But it is depressingly plausible that he will be facing a cornered, radicalized despotism. It would be unthinkable to attempt to do business with such a regime while pretending that nothing fundamental has changed. That is why Obama was ill-advised to muse that "the difference between (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad and (opposition candidate Mir Hossein) Mousavi in terms of their actual positions may not be as great as has been advertised."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown struck a more appropriate note when he said that "we want Iran to be part of the international community and not to be isolated. But it is for Iran to prove ... that they can respect these basic rights."
Nuclear weapons are not threatening to the United States in the hands of France or, for that matter, other democracies such as India or Israel - even though the latter two are not part of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But when unstable, ambitious and ideologically extreme tyrannies get the bomb, the menace can extend worldwide. In that sense, Khamenei has done us all a favor by revealing what kind of government Iran will have as long as he's around.