The Iranian people are protesting and counter-protesting over their presidential election results. The unrest is similar to the protests of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, the Tiananmen Square event, and the Berlin Wall. (Or the Israeli and Indian independence movements.) What happens next will depend very much on the bureaucratic actors in Iran. The American response therefore needs to shape and influence these bureaucratic actors.
As Mao Zedung famously observed, "Political power comes from the barrel of a gun." Political transition cannot occur without military power. It is all fine and good that people are marching in the streets, but they cannot change the government if the military balance is against them. For example, in Ukraine and in East Germany, the military sat out on the protests, neither embracing nor opposing the marchers. The people could march in peace and effect change. In Israel and India, the independence movements attacked the British colonial administration with sabotage and assassinations. The British government decided to stop fighting and withdrew. In Western democracies, the military protects the political transitions of elections. Without a military component, protests will cry unheard.
Therefore we need to look at the military dimension in Iran right now. The military opposition in Iran is very small. For example, Michael Totten visited some Iranian Communist Party militia in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2006 [Correction: 2007], and they numbered in hundreds at most. We hear about ethnic separatist violence in Iran from time to time (Iran is an empire), but they were few in number and limited in effect. The student protesters do not seem to have a military wing, judging by my perception that there have been few assassinations of the secret police officials in Tehran. For the Iranian protest to become an Iranian revolution, we will have to look toward the government bodies.
Iran has several militaries. There are the usual Iranian Army, Navy, and Air Force. There is also the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which has ships and planes of its own. There is the Iranian National Police, which shares the paramilitary and law enforcement portfolio with the Revolutionary Guards. How will they respond to the protest and possible constitutional crisis?
Ahmadinejad came from the Revolutionary Guards, so the Guards will probably side with Ahmadinejad. More importantly, however, the Guards exists to support the Iranian Guardian Council, so they will do what Khamenei says. The Iranian military, on the other hands, competes with the Revolutionary Guards on military matters, so may be inclined to support the students. On the other hand, the Iranian military probably views the current unrest as an American/Israeli conspiracy. Therefore, we need to give the Iranian military the breathing space to make up its mind.
We need to signal the Iranian military that we are not going to take advantage of their current political weakness. We can employ confidence building measures such as officer exchange programs and military visits. These things take time to set up, but by starting the planning process for them, we demonstrate our intentions to the Iranian military. Further, we should decrease the military tension when possible. Our forces in the Persian Gulf can stand down their tempo of operations, such as decreased patrols and training flights. The US Army can minimize its patrols near the Iraqi-Iranian border.
Furthermore, we need to tell the Iranians what we are doing. President Obama can put his mega-watt smile on TV and tell the Iranians that we are standing down militarily to show them we harbor no ill will toward them. He can make a historic announcement to normalize our diplomatic ties with Iran, such as setting up an embassy in Tehran. He should tell them that, regardless of who ends up being president of Iran, the United States will continue the rapprochement. We need to show respect for Iran's constitutional process so that the Iranian military can stop focusing on us and start focusing on their constitutional crisis.
Many commentators in America are saying that we need to "Show our solidarity with the Iranian people and support their democratic dreams." That, in my opinion, is precisely the wrong thing to do. Our support will only feed the Iranian conspiracy theory that the protest is an American/Israeli plot. Instead, we need to back off on the aggressive democratic talk, and demonstrate our respect for Iran's institutions. We need to do what we can to let the Iranian Army support the students.
Edited: The Stimulist looks at the next step here. Anne Applebaum wants to up the democratic rhetoric. Patrick Lang looks beyond the current protest stage, toward the possibly next stage of armed revolution. Adam Silverman analyzes revolutions in general.
Edited for format and inserted links.