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Rafsanjani Turns The Tide. What Now?

 Abbas Milani is the Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford, where he is also a co-director of Iranian studies at Stanford. His last book is Eminent Persians: The Men and Women who Made Modern Iran (Syracuse University Press, 2008).

In the most anticipated speech of his storied career, Rafsanjani has finally weighed in on the side of the opposition in Iran's post-election crisis. While Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his despotic cohorts have praised the election as "blessed" and divine, the "freest in the world," and the "death-knell of liberal democracy in the world," Rafsanjani declared it incurably flawed, and the source of a "crisis of confidence" in the nation. It is, he said, un-Islamic to "ignore people's votes," bluntly accusing the regime of stealing the election. He demanded the release of all political prisoners, saying they must be allowed to offer their services to the nation. And he began his sermon by conjuring the name of Ayatollah Taleghani--easily the most democratic cleric of the early days of the revolution, and the man, not incidentally who edited the new version of Ayatollah Nai'ni's famous twentieth-century treatise on the necessity of democracy for Shi'ite countries. In nearly every one of these defiant declarations, he was taking aim at Khamenei, once again reaffirming that the days of Khamenei as the infallible spiritual leader have mercifully ended.

Before today, Rafsanjani had only spoken once since the crackdown--and then only indirectly in support of the movement. Today's speech, followed by many confrontations between demonstrators and regime shock troops, marks a new stage in the evolving Green Revolution. Rafsanjani's support is the culmination of numerous pillars of the regime openly defecting to the opposition. The fact that Rafsanjani could deliver the Friday sermon--an honor bestowed theologically only on the most venerated holy man in a city--shows the extent of his clout in the corridors of clerical power in Iran. Opposition support could be seen in the hundreds of thousands of Iranians, many wearing green bands or bandanas, who came to the event--many of them from the affluent parts of the city and clearly unused to the rituals of a public prayer.

With massive support on the streets, and powerful presence in the ranks of the clergy, the movement now needs international support. Democracies around the world can help the cause of democracy in Iran by withholding recognition to the Ahmadinejad administration. Iranian people do not want the kind of foreign dictated "regime change" that was for years the dream of neo-cons in Washington. They have now shown their determination to change the regime from themselves. The world can help them achieve it by a few more months of a studied diplomatic rebuff of the usurping Ahmadinejad regime.

--Abbas Milani