HOW DO YOU KNOW when the revolution has really begun? That's the question Iran's leaders must be asking themselves. For the past week, anti-regime protests have rocked Tehran and other cities, including Isfahan and Shiraz. Students are leading the demonstrations, but others -- nobody really knows how many -- are also participating. Clashes between protesters and armed vigilantes -- claiming to be acting in the name of the Islamic revolution -- have led to many injuries, some critical. Already the specter of 1999 looms. That year, vigilantes beat and arrested hundreds, possibly thousands, after demonstrations and riots spread to 22 cities. Some fear the regime will observe the fourth anniversary of that event by repeating it.
But this time there are signs that the regime is less confident than before, or at least less certain of the right response. After a few days of riots, it announced its intention to arrest vigilantes suspected of fomenting bloodshed -- perhaps because the Iranian leadership knows that the attacks on protesters only anger people further. Other evidence, however, suggests that the regime is merely frustrated by the vigilantes' failure to stop the rebellion and has begun sending in real soldiers.
Because Western journalists are kept away from demonstrations and out of provincial cities, it is difficult for outsiders to gauge the significance of what is going on in Iran. But whether this is a real revolution or another round of riots, doomed to end in another round of prison sentences, the U.S. reaction should not be in doubt. Indeed, although they have been denounced in Tehran, the reactions of President Bush and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher have been right on the mark. "This is the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran," the president said. Mr. Boucher, meanwhile, has now said openly what many in Washington have long said privately: "We've reached the conclusion that Iran is actively working to develop nuclear weapons capability."The "reformers" within the regime have proven powerless to prevent the "hard-liners" from arresting democratic activists and shutting down publications. The "reformers" also have collaborated in what appears to be active pursuit of nuclear weapons and the continued sponsorship of terrorist groups. Scattered, disorganized and still powerless though they may be, the student demonstrators and those brave enough to join them represent the best hope for change in Iran. They deserve supportive words from the United States.