A deceptive calm has fallen on the streets of Iran's big cities after last summer's post-election repression. Although there is a veneer of restored order, the embers of rebellion still burn. The ayatollahs have missed their appointment with the hangman, but the question remains: for how long? The life of the Islamic Republic can be prolonged only by the crushing of its restive youth or by its attaining nuclear weapons. The latter may not ensure eternal life, but it can shield Iran from foreign enemies and enable Tehran to hold on to its subversive place in the sun for decades to come.
This is the challenge facing the West. If internal change can create a new, benign and regionally responsible Iran, how can the West ensure that Tehran's "velvet revolution" clock ticks faster than its nuclear clock? While the West is continuing to engage the regime to solve the nuclear standoff, it should also talk over the ayatollahs' heads and address the population.
So far, however, this has not been the case. For European governments the promotion of human rights inside Iran was never an attractive proposition. Europe feared antagonising China and Russia, its partners in the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). Loathing the regime-change rhetoric of the Bush administration, the EU believed that Tehran could be persuaded to be nice if only it could be assured that the West would not seek to subvert it. The Americans now appear to agree.
Under the Obama administration, support for Iran's opposition has been eroding steadily in Washington too. Europeans insist their agenda is not regime-change but behaviour change. The message to Tehran is: "As long as we are talking, we will not contemplate any other measure to achieve our goals."
This is a blow to Iran's beleaguered forces of change. Potentially, it is also a strategic blunder of tragic proportions. Western governments have chosen to offer recognition to the regime and are ready to shake its leaders' hands when they are dripping with the blood of their people.