Before we left for our winter holidays, it was possible to say certain clear things about Iran.
It was an authoritarian country, with a cleric at its head, but not a totalitarian country, like the former East Germany. Its protests were limited in scope and largely obsolete. Its revolutionary constitution had the respect of most people. Its nuclear program was not active.
In less than two weeks, everything has changed. But we must carefully discern which of the new realities matters.
The slaying of protesters on the holy day of Ashura, two days after Christmas, the seizing of their corpses before they could be buried, and the brutal crackdowns that have followed, have permanently changed the Iranian people's view of their President and the regime he represents.
The arrest and banning of opposition figures, the new use of spies, the much wider repression, have turned a populist-acting regime into something more like a total state.
Suddenly, in the eyes of mainstream Iranians, the regime has lost much of its theological credibility. As the reformer Mehdi Karroubi has said, even the still-hated Shah respected Ashura. These were not the acts of a "living God," as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is meant to be seen.
And the escalating cycle of protests and repressions, very likely to reach a new plateau on the Jan. 16 anniversary of the 1979 revolution, has become something separate from the election unrest of last year.
"Before, people including me were trying to say that it's just a limited election dispute," says Ali Ansari, a respected historian of Iranian politics.
"The election no longer matters. … This has been turned, by the government itself, into something more fundamental about the nature of government in the country."
This is not the Iran of 1979. It is thoroughly middle-class, with one of the east's highest university-education rates. There are 25.5 million registered Internet users in a country of 75 million; there are 50 million cellphone users. Iranians know very well what the alternatives are.
Still, there's unlikely to be a revolution this year, and even if there is, it won't be of the velvet variety. Any larger uprising could be very bloody: There are at least 90,000 members of the fanatical Basij volunteer militia, recently turned into a Stasi-like force by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Given the exciting and worrisome nature of such a seismic shift in the Middle East's most important country, it would be foolish to do anything that might damage the momentum.
Which, unfortunately, is what a number of people in the West would like to do. Not because of Iran's renewed potential for change, but because of something else that has happened these past few weeks.
Shortly before Christmas, for the first time, the International Atomic Energy Agency recognized "the possibility of military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program."
Iran, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has to disclose any nuclear activities and allow inspections. In September, the world learned Iran was beginning to create an undisclosed enrichment facility in a tunnel beneath a mountain. That, plus Mr. Ahmadinejad's hostility and evasiveness, have made Iran's potential nuclear-weapons program a bigger worry than its authoritarianism.
But the nuclear issue is the one that can wait. The country currently has 8,000 centrifuges for making low-enriched uranium, of which only about 3,936 are being run, a number that has dropped by a thousand since last June: Iran is close to a making a weapon the way an owner of an iron mine is close to making an automobile. Their program is dropping away, probably because the protests have created other priorities.
Given this and other intelligence discoveries, the White House now believes it will be as long as three years before Iran is even capable of beginning the enrichment of its fuel into weapons-grade purity. Even then, under the most desirable of circumstances, even one weapon would take five or six additional years.
An attack on Iran would almost certainly accelerate the pace of the nuclear program, by allowing the regime to channel all its energies into militarization - exactly what the political crisis has prevented it from doing.
More importantly, an attack would end any anti-regime resistance.
Iran has come close to a major transformation several times: In the mid-1980s, and then at the beginning of the last decade. Those movements were only halted by outside forces: Saddam Hussein's attack and the war that followed; George W. Bush's "axis of evil," which brought Mr. Ahmadinejad to power. To throw a bunker-buster bomb in the middle of democratic change now would be a historically wasted opportunity.Report Typo/Error