The domestic political situation in Iran is unpredictable. Indeed, it would be odd to expect predictable simplicity from a complex situation in the complex adaptive system of a large, multi-layered society. Who in 1986 expected the USSR to collapse five years later, though in retrospect all the factors were already in place by then?

In the long run, the regime of the ayatollahs is as doomed as any religious authority in an enlightened society which has been opened to new ideas. How long that run will be is unclear: it may be months or it may be decades. What kind of government will replace it is still more uncertain, as several opposing factors are in play. The atheistic middle class want economic security rather than Ahmadinejad-style religious zealotry. However, most of the Iranian population is rural and poor, so they expect no immediate economic progress and would welcome somewhat renewed nationalist ideals. Opposition leaders and students rally behind the ultra-fundamentalist cleric Montazeri, but so did Gorbachev argue for “socialism with a human face,” appealing to Lenin’s quotations for authority. The Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia appear ready to suppress any rebellion, but the army proved useless in the USSR in 1991. Politicians in power may chicken out of firing at crowds, or a few generals may switch over to the opposition. Ayatollah Khamenei, a very old man, won’t live much longer, and Rafsanjani will install a puppet grand ayatollah—but that puppet, like Khamenei before him, could grow into a standalone player. Rafsanjani himself is torn between gross corruption, which ostensibly brings him closer to the West, and his lifelong desire to develop the bomb, which brings him into the camp of radicals and hardcore Revolutionary Guards. The Guards’ commanders are torn between militancy and corruption, just as the Soviet generals were.

Like any country, Iran’s long-term trend will undoubtedly be toward moderation, but in the meantime it has plenty of time to develop nuclear weapons. So far, Ayatollah Khamenei looks like the only check on the Iranian nuclear program, as he adheres steadfastly to Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa forbidding weapons of mass destruction. Supporting the Iranian opposition means in the short term destroying that only hurdle, as any likely successor to Khamenei will be at first more amenable to Rafsanjani’s pressure and agree to issue a fatwa circumventing Khomeini’s prohibition.

It is futile to imagine that the opposition will appeal to the West for recognition and economic aid just after the putsch, and will agree to a reciprocal demand to curtail the nuclear program. That did not happen in Russia or Pakistan, and it won’t happen in Iran. The victorious opposition first needs to prove itself to the population, and will at first strenuously uphold its nationalist credentials, which it would be able to betray only much later, when firmly entrenched in power. Mousawi isn’t stupid and must understand a simple rule: he can wrest more concessions from the West as a nuclear power than as a broken country. Mousawi’s government is unlikely to abandon the imperialist policy that he actually jump-started long ago by establishing contacts with Hezbollah. Nor would it make sense for Iran to abandon the African axis, which was arduously developed by Khatami. Unlike Uncle Sam, who wastes trillions of dollars in lost wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran wins with extreme economic efficiency: all its footprints in Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, and various other African and Muslim countries cost the ayatollahs less than two billion dollars a year. Again, Iran’s imperialist policy might change as Russia’s did, but just like Russia, Iran may eventually rethink its abandonment of imperial ambitions. Tehran is the natural center of the world’s Shia movement, and that centralization is especially provoked by rival Saudi attempts at centralizing Sunni Islam–—an attempt which Egypt fights ferociously, seeing itself as a seat of Sunni Islam scholarship. With Turkey’s likely entrance into the battle for Sunni leadership, Iran cannot ignore the need for a similar process in the Shia world. So far, Iran’s long-term imperial ambitions seem fairly certain—and nuclear fission is an important step toward cementing those ambitions.