"Everyone speaking of Ayatollah Khamenei tends to use the word 'cautious,' a man who never gambles. But he now faces a nearly impossible choice. If he lets the demonstrations swell, it could well change the system of clerical rule. If he uses violence to stamp them out, the myth of a popular mandate for the Islamic revolution will die."
- Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times
It has been a delicate balance for Iran since the revolution in 1979, trying to counter a model of representative democracy under an all-powerful Shiite leadership, personified for the past two decades by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Does it work?
Any model of government relies on control of the apparatus of state to stand, thrive and survive.
In theory, this means many things - the currency and the exchequer; state media; a working legislature.
But in practice this comes down to one thing - coercion. As we have seen far too often, control of the police and the army equates to control of all of society.
Now, with a disputed election setting alight the ideals and energy of a young, educated generation of Iranians, we are going to see exactly who controls the Islamic Republic, and towards whom the apparatus of will power break.
The New York Times, God bless their bankrupt souls, are reporting that the tumult that has poured on to the streets of Tehran and claimed seven lives may be about to expose cracks in the previously unquestionable authority of Khamenei, who is doing his aura of invincibility no favours in backtracking from his stance of solid support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by calling for a review of last week's blatantly rigged poll.
He's clearly just buying time, but the act is significant all the same.
The crux of what's happening there is that the Ayatollah and the Guardian Council rely on a fundamentalist strand of Islam perforating all facets of Iranian life to maintain their grip on power.
Mir Hussein Moussavi, the reformist who had last week's election stolen from him, would have stressed secularist policies, detente with the west and improved personal freedoms for women.
The conservative branches of power could not, would not and will not tolerate a reformist at a time when youth populism is so receptive and volatile. They figured that handing the election to Ahmadinejad and letting protests build for a time before imposing a blanket media ban and curfew would see them through.
They were wrong.
Whatever happens in Iran in the coming days, we are not likely to witness a sea change in how this conservative religious hierarchy chooses to do business.
Iran is now just another example, if we needed any, about how incompatible Church and State are in a globalised world.
Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern secularist Turkey, looks even more like a man ahead of his time.