By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News
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 emerges with his position within the Khomeinist establishment strengthened.
Just a couple of weeks ago we were told that Ahmadinejad's star was on the wane, and that "moderate mullahs" had persuaded the "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to restrain the firebrand president.
However, when the ultimatum set for the Islamic republic by the United Nations' Security Council ended last week, it was Ahmadinejad who gave the regime's final word.
Addressing a provincial crowd, the president announced that Iran's nuclear programme had no reverse gear. Iran 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.
Some fantasists, including Javier Solana, the ineffective European Union foreign policy czar, have tried to present Iran's uranium enrichment programme as a technical issue. Others, such as French President Jacques Chirac, have even advised acceptance of what they regard as fait accompli.
For Ahmadinejad, however, the issue is political in the grand sense of the term with nothing less than the survival of the Khomeinist regime at stake.
The Khomeinist revolution of 1979 had three slogans: independence, liberty, Islamic government. The regime that emerged from it tried to build its legitimacy on that basis.
Over the past quarter of a century, however, the Khomeinist regime has failed to deliver on its triple slogan.
In all practical terms, Iran today is more dependent on the outside world than before the Khomeinist seizure of power. In 1977, there were no outside forces in the Gulf. Today, the United States and its allies control the waterway. Iranian ships and aircraft passing through the Gulf have to clear their routes with the Americans.
As for liberty, the second item on the triple slogan, it is clear to most Iranians today that they are much less free, especially in social and cultural terms, than they were before the mullahs seized power.
According to a recent study by the International Monetary Fund, Iran is now experiencing the largest brain drain in its history, largely because the educated elites flee an oppressive atmosphere.
The third item of the slogan, 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 massive loss of legitimacy that the Islamic Republic has faced at least since the early 1990s. He knows that he cannot rebuild the regime's legitimacy by offering greater liberty to the Iranian people.
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.
The radicals are left with two options: thickening the Islamic colouring of the regime, and emphasising its claim of independence.
Ahmadinejad has tried to thicken the regime's religious colouring by casting himself in the role of the proverbial Islamic Ghazi (holy warrior) who will ride his white horse into Occupied 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.
Two or three years ago, the regime could have interrupted its nuclear programme without losing face on the issue of its claim of independence. This was because most Iranians knew nothing of the programme and the controversy it had provoked.
Today, however, and 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 the result of an attempt by big powers to deny Iran nuclear energy, many Iranians, while suspicious of the regime's motives, nevertheless support its position.
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 geo-strategic interests.
If, on the other hand, the Khomeinist regime is forced to back down on this issue, the radical moment would fade, while the many enemies of the regime regroup to either topple it or change it beyond recognition as Deng Xiao-ping did with the Maoist regime in China.
What we are witnessing is the start of what could be a long and complicated conflict, not a prelude to a sharp and short exchange as many expect. What is at stake is the future not only of Iran but also of the place of American power in the global arena.
This showdown cannot end without a clear winner and a clear loser.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author based in Europe.