Iran: Three Alternative Futures
There is at least one other path to this outcome that could result from the current nuclear stand-off. If the United States were to launch military strikes against the Iranian nuclear program, it seems most likely that this would result in the same hardliner victory in Tehran. Obviously such an unprovoked act of war would throw a great many things up in the air, but it seems most likely that doing so would once again play into the arguments of the hardliners: They would be able to claim such attacks as proof that the United States sought to destroy the Islamic Republic and subjugate Iran; they would be able to argue that such an attack increased the importance of acquiring nuclear weapons to deter future American military operations, and many Iranians probably would be more willing to tolerate economic problems if they believed it necessary to make sacrifices to fight a war against the United States. It would simultaneously discredit the reformists and the pragmatists for having argued for better relations with the United States and might provide an excuse for the hardliners to crack down hard on even the mildest forms of dissent.Consequently, a U.S. military operation ironically could have the same impact as a Western failure to deal firmly with Iran's nuclear program: it could allow Iran's radical hardliners to marginalize the reformists and pragmatists and to take more complete control over Iranian policy and governmental organizations. In other words, both of the extreme options being considered by Western governments to deal with Iran's nuclear program--military strikes or caving in to Tehran--would likely produce the same terrible (from a Western perspective) outcome with regard to the future of Iran.
If the nuclear stand-off ends quickly in an Iranian victory, this is likely to tilt power heavily toward Iran's hardliners who will be able to impose their preferred policy options on the Iranian government. In this case a "victory" would mean that the international community was unable to agree on an approach that either forced Iran to give up its nuclear program or else inflicted such heavy penalties on them for continued recalcitrance that the public would view a stubborn continuance of the program as worse than a pyrrhic victory. In these circumstances, the hardliners will be able to claim that they were right: that the West needed them more than they needed the West (as Mr. Ahmadinejad has stated) and that they did not need to fear any diminution of European and Japanese economic ties. It will be a major victory for the hardline position, and would effectively discredit both the pragmatists and the mainstream conservatives (who sympathize with the pragmatists' concerns about the economy).