CAIRO — Iran's Islamic regime has survived a devastating war with Iraq, strong American sanctions and international isolation in its 30 years of power. It has seen reformist and hard-line presidents come and go, with barely a flinch.
But now, public anger over the disputed presidential election has given Iran's ruling elite a challenge of a new and unsettling kind: a growing opposition movement with apparent broad backing, headed by a leader who is one of their own — and doesn't seem intimidated.
Iran's clergy-guided system does not appear in immediate danger. But the ruling clerics are paying close attention to the street anger — the same popular unrest they harnessed themselves three decades ago to bring down the shah in their 1979 revolution.
There is a chance that the recent protests could transform into a serious, credible movement similar to an opposition party in another country, fundamentally changing a system now ruled by an all-powerful and untouchable theocracy.
There is also a chance that, to avoid such an outcome, the clerics will either jettison, or at minimum rein in and weaken, the president they have supported until now, hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
For that to happen, the protests would almost certainly need to be sustained, spread to other cities and most important, attract enough clerical support to create high-level rifts.
"No one is very sure where it will go next," said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. But she says: "They have forced the regime to take a step back."
Despite that, the likelihood that Iran's clergy-ruled system will undergo a radical change remains dim.
Many Iranians feel strong kinship with the revolution, its heirs and the system they created, and are reluctant to do anything that would trigger bloody upheaval again. Ahmadinejad has broad support among the poor and pious, who also venerate the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Yet Ahmadinejad's hard-line jousts with the West, his mishandling of the economy and, in particular, what many view as a blatant theft of the election, seem to be turning off growing segments of the middle class.
The protests are different from the country's last unrest, student-led protests in 1999 that fizzled. In particular, this go-round has attracted some of Iran's middle class, the same group that changed a religious movement in 1979 into a revolutionary force.
The leader of the street protesters this time, rival presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, is also different from the reformist student leaders of 1999. He is no sideline player or amateur but an experienced politician who was prime minister in the 1980s during Iran's tough war with Iraq, when Khamenei was president.
Mousavi does not appear intimidated by the supreme leader or his inner circle. He can make their life rough if he begins to criticize the clerical system as complicit in protecting Ahmadinejad.
There's no way to know if Mousavi will challenge, or would even want to challenge, the Islamic system itself. He is a product of the revolution, never known as a reformer in the past. Yet he has already gone further than many expected.
Sally Buzbee is the Mideast editor for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.