Now, on the eve of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic, as Iran braces for what could be the largest and most violent demonstrations since the election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, the country may be on the brink of civil war. ~Reza Aslan

That’s an eye-catching statement, but what reason would anyone have for believing it? After a lot of background and stage-setting, Aslan writes that clashes between pro- and anti-regime crowds could “augur a civil war.” If there were such a conflict, so much the worse for the unarmed, ostensibly non-violent protest movement. The weird thing about so much pro-Green commentary in the West is that it is the movement’s sympathizers who are heartened by reports that the movement and its leaders are becoming more combative and more radically opposed to the entire regime. They seem to think that the less chance for compromise between the regime and the opposition, the better this will be for the opposition, but this seems unlikely. If clashes this week prompted widespread violence and open rebellion against the government, the opposition would be outnumbered and outgunned all over the country. A civil war, such as it would be, would be short, bloody and not to the advantage of the Green movement.

Whenever I point out that the Green movement probably represents a minority of the minority of pro-Mousavi Iranians, I am reminded that revolutions are led by minorities, but to date there have been no successful revolutions against governments like this one led by a distinct minority that also has no military forces on its side. The “color” revolutions peacefully prevailed over individual leaders and their cronies because the latter presided over very weak states. The Iranian “deep state” is much more powerful, much more entrenched, much more tied into the Iranian economy, and thus far has been entirely loyal to the current regime. For the sake of the protesters, we should hope that Thursday and the days afterwards are peaceful and not a harbinger of armed conflict, because in such a conflict the opposition would have no hope of prevailing.

Aslan is probably right that Ahmadinejad’s announcement on enrichment is a bluff. Of course, the Iranian inability to enrich beyond 5% tells us that fears of their nuclear program are wildly overblown. It means that the fixation on compelling Iran to send its LEU abroad to be enriched to a higher grade is pointless, because there is little threat that Iran could produce weapons-grade material if it cannot even produce the material needed for its medical reactor. Ahmadinejad cannot be engaged in “nuclear brinksmanship” when he cannot take his government or anyone else’s to the brink of a nuclear exchange. It cannot be “blackmail” to announce a course of action that is both legally permitted and also impossible to carry out. For its part, the Iranian government sees no contradiction between continuing to negotiate fuel swaps while attempting their own enrichment. Logically, there is no contradiction. If Iran’s government does not have the technical ability to do the latter, the announcement has no significance at all and should not interfere with negotiations over fuel swaps.

Of course, this is not how Western governments are reacting. Secretary Gates has announced support for the “pressure track” (i.e., sanctions), and both German and French governments rejected last week’s offer to resume negotiations on fuel swaps. Sanctions are precisely what the Green movement does not want, because they understand that these sanctions will harm them far more than they will harm the regime. Even though everyone can see Ahmadinejad’s bluff for what it is, Western governments are reacting to it as if it were a serious announcement.

Aslan writes near the end:

Ahmadinejad is desperate to rally the country behind him using the one issue on which all Iranians, regardless of their politics or piety, agree [bold mine-DL]. Ahmedinejad hopes to elicit a belligerent response from the West, allowing him to arouse the people’s national pride.

That is probably right, and so far Western governments are doing exactly what he wants. An overwhelming majority of Iranians does support a peaceful, civilian nuclear program, which is all that Ahmadinejad has committed to publicly. What Aslan fails to explain is why Ahmadinejad is going to fail in rallying the country behind him, especially when Western governments are falling into their predictable, confrontational pattern of threats and punitive measures.