An Iranian with green painted fingers protests against the governmentWhen the Obama administration announced the discovery of a second uranium enrichment facility in Iran in September, we were once again treated to the familiar charade of Western leaders threatening ever-tighter sanctions, while Iran’s president retorted with evermore bellicose intransigence. Meanwhile China and Russia continue to play down Iran’s nuclear capabilities and do business as usual. Iran itself dances a tango with the International Atomic Energy Agency, appearing to cooperate by opening its facilities for inspection and offering concessions, only to renege on them days later. Nothing is new in this ritual, save the stakes. For the Iranian theocracy is not only battling to secure its international standing, but to defend itself from its own people.

Soon after protests against the stolen election of June died down and the “Green revolution” lost its news value, the Iranian opposition disappeared from the mainstream media and returned to where it came from: to postings on Facebook and Twitter, and snippets of mobile phone recordings from ad-hoc protests against President Ahmadinejad. Yet the opposition continues, as this week’s demonstrations prove, as does the repressive response to them, like the many show trials, in which intellectuals and activists are publicly humiliated and sentenced to shockingly heavy prison sentences on fabricated charges.

The green resistance may be facing the threat of severe reprisal, but it is far from defeated. Visiting Tehran and the provincial cities of Esfahan and Qom recently, I was struck by the lack of fear among the young men and women I spoke to, who would openly express their dismay at the election rigging and openly condemn Ahmadinejad’s policies. Speaking with Azeris, who make up roughly a third of the population and speak a dialect very close to my native Turkish, I also had the chance to see beyond the English-speaking intelligentsia and upper middle classes of North Tehran. The message was the same: frustration in the face of unemployment, despair over a tightly controlled public space that makes it next to impossible to socialise and interact freely with members of the opposite sex and, inevitably, anger at the regime, which has now taken away even the institution of moderately free and fair elections. With young men and women under 30 making up more than two thirds of society and a political regime that juggles with the rhetoric of the Islamic revolution and barefaced power politics, these are the necessary ingredients for the maturation of revolutionary conditions.

The Islamic revolution in 1979, which laid the foundations of the current institutions of the republic, had promised a clean break with the regime of the Shah. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s rule was cynical, parasitic, authoritarian, oppressive and, importantly, unconditionally supported by the United States. The new Iran would be post-colonial, post-imperialist and Islamic, and it would elevate the hitherto downtrodden to the level of a decent life. What started off with these lofty ideas, however, rapidly descended into a nightmare of revolutionary purges, destruction of the socially liberal middle classes and the all-consuming war with Iraq. The war left over a million dead, yet also helped the regime to consolidate and to impose a measure of grimness and mourning on the Iranian people that goes far beyond the Shia predilection for martyrdom.

Yet, 30 years after the revolution, and 12 years after the hopeful beginnings of the reformist government under Mohammed Khatami, the regime’s claim to hegemony is in tatters. Excellent educational opportunities – certainly one of the great achievements of the revolution – have led to the ascent of well-trained young men and women, yet the (mis-) management of the economy has deprived them of jobs. On top of the oil-rent, which is siphoned off to religious leaders and entrepreneurs sympathetic to the government, a substantial part of the productive sector is not only controlled but also managed by the Revolutionary Guards. State subsidies keep alive an almost medieval manufacturing sector which, while it has long ceased to be viable, still provides the bulk of the everyday goods for general consumption. Monopolistic import licences are granted generously to supporters of the regime, leading to such bizarre situations as religious scholars importing the satellite dishes used to broadcast the very programmes they decry as immoral in their sermons.

The regime is aware that its survival is contingent on its ability to contain the growing public anger and frustration. As long as the official ideology is not questioned, and appearances are kept up, alcohol and drug consumption, house parties and underground rock bands are tolerated. Prostitution is widespread, whether in the religiously legitimised form of temporary marriages, or in its officially non-existent transsexual and gay variations. Even though direct flights to the Turkish holiday resort of Antalya are banned, every day dozens of charter flights leave from Teheran’s Imam Khomeini Airport for nondescript cities in Anatolia, before they continue their journey to the Mediterranean coast.

All this, however, does little to assuage the millions who have lost their faith in the Islamic regime, and who might be losing their faith altogether after three decades of Islamic government. Expected protests at the opening ceremony of the University of Tehran forced President Ahmadinejad to stay home and send his science minister instead, who, in turn, had just been denounced for having plagiarised a scholarly article. The ensuing protests were defiant and powerful. The state reaction was cowardly: ever more students and supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi are being imprisoned, tortured and forced to sign fake confessions. Hundreds escape over the border to Turkey, where they make their way to Istanbul and the consulates of European and American countries to obtain student visas.

Iran is in turmoil, and this turmoil will not die down easily; show-trials, torture and humiliation of the activists of the Green revolution notwithstanding. The current regime is, in the words of the influential Ayatollah Montazeri “neither Islamic, nor a Republic”. With the destruction of Khatami’s reformist project, and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei’s refusal to play the elder statesman and moderate Ahmadinejad’s vitriol, two precious opportunities for a peaceful transformation of the Islamic Republic into a more democratic and less cynical state have passed. There may not be a third one. The future of Iran is not dark green. Whether it will be the light green of the reformists, we will soon see.