Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN at 1 and 5 p.m. ET Sundays, and on CNN International 0900, 1600 Buenos Aires l 1300, 2000 London l 2000, 0300 (Mon) HK
Fareed Zakaria says "no one bought" Khamenei's "divine assessment" of the official election result.
(CNN) -- The decisive margin of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory in the June 12 election stunned many observers and angered his opponents' supporters, who in the ensuing days took to the streets in protest by the hundreds of thousands.
Some experts have called the effect unprecedented: Several powerful figures have openly supported the top challenger, Mir Hossein Moussavi, even as the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has endorsed the official results favoring Ahmadinejad.
In the meantime, using online social networking sites such as Twitter, Iranians have been able to get around the government's efforts to restrict media coverage, and the outcry against the election result has intensified.
At Friday prayers in Tehran, Khamenei told a partisan audience the "ruling elites" would be "held accountable for all violence and blood and rioting." CNN spoke with Fareed Zakaria about the significance of the recent protests and the leadership's response:
CNN: As you've seen the situation in Iran develop over the last week, what are your thoughts?
Fareed Zakaria: One of the first things that strikes me is we are watching the fall of Islamic theocracy.
CNN: Do you mean you think the regime will fall?
Zakaria: No, I don't mean the Iranian regime will fall soon. It may -- I certainly hope it will -- but repressive regimes can stick around for a long time. I mean that this is the end of the ideology that lay at the basis of the Iranian regime.
The regime's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, laid out his special interpretation of political Islam in a series of lectures in 1970. In this interpretation of Shia Islam, Islamic jurists had divinely ordained powers to rule as guardians of the society, supreme arbiters not only on matters of morality but politics as well. When Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, this idea was at its heart. Last week, that ideology suffered a fatal wound.
CNN: How so?
Zakaria: When the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a "divine assessment," he was indicating it was divinely sanctioned. But no one bought it. He was forced to accept the need for an inquiry into the election. The Guardian Council, Iran's supreme constitutional body, met with the candidates and promised to investigate and perhaps recount some votes. Khamenei has subsequently hardened his position but that is now irrelevant. Something very important has been laid bare in Iran today --- legitimacy does not flow from divine authority but from popular support.
CNN: There have been protests in Iran before. What makes this different?
Zakaria: In the past the protests were always the street against the state, and the clerics all sided with the state. When the reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, was in power, he entertained the possibility of siding with the street, but eventually stuck with the establishment. The street and state are at odds again but this time the clerics are divided. Khatami has openly sided with the challenger, Mir Hossein Moussavi, as has the reformist Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. So has Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament and a man with strong family connections to the highest levels of the religious hierarchy. Behind the scenes, the former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, now head of the Assembly of Experts, another important constitutional body, is waging a campaign against Ahmadinejad and even the supreme leader himself. If senior clerics dispute Khamenei's divine assessment and argue that the Guardian Council is wrong, it is a death blow to the basic premise behind the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is as if a senior Soviet leader had said in 1980 that Karl Marx was not the right guide to economic policy.
CNN: What should the United States do?
Zakaria: I would say continue what we have been doing. By reaching out to Iran, publicly and repeatedly, President Obama has made it extremely difficult for the Iranian regime to claim that they are battling an aggressive America bent on attacking Iran. In his inaugural address, his New Year greetings, and his Cairo speech, there is a consistent effort to convey respect and friendship for Iranians. That is why Khamenei reacted so angrily to the New Year greeting. It undermined the image of the Great Satan that he routinely paints in his sermons. In his Friday sermon, Khamenei said that the United States, Israel, and especially the United Kingdom were behind the street protests, an accusation that will surely sound ridiculous to most Iranians. The fact that Obama has been cautious in his reaction makes it all the harder for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to wrap themselves in a nationalist flag.
CNN: But shouldn't the U.S. be more vocal in support for the Iranian protesters?
Zakaria: I think a good historic analogy is President George H.W. Bush's cautious response to the cracks in the Soviet empire in 1989. Then, many neo-conservatives were livid with Bush for not loudly supporting those trying to topple the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. But Bush's concern was that the situation was fragile. Those regimes could easily crack down on the protestors and the Soviet Union could send in tanks. Handing the communists reasons to react forcefully would help no one, least of all the protesters. Bush's basic approach was correct and has been vindicated by history.
CNN: Finally, do you think the regime will survive?
Zakaria: As I said before, repressive regimes can last a long time, and this regime can definitely endure if they are willing to use force, impose a strict crackdown on protests, and arrest the leaders of the opposition. Only time will tell, so we will have see what develops.