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Proponents of conciliation maintain that engaging Tehran is the only practical way to counter the nuclear and regional threats posed by the ayatollahs. Why? Because, they say, Iran under the ayatollahs’ rule is a “rising regional power,” stable at home and hugely influential in Iraq. So the West must tread carefully. Never mind that engaging a religious dictatorship hell-bent on erecting an Islamic fundamentalist empire is nothing short of capitulation and appeasement of the worst kind.

But for all the talk about the ayatollahs’ power and stability, there are times when a single crisis deflates this myth and puts the inherit incompetence and vulnerability of the Tehran regime on full display. The ongoing heating oil crisis during one of Iran’s worst winters in decades is a case in point.

The region’s “rising power,” which has the second largest gas reserves in the world, is facing a political and social crisis at home over shortages of natural gas. Riots have been reported in several cities.

Unrestrained government corruption, mismanagement and utter disregard for the well-being of ordinary citizens are the main reasons. Although the ayatollahs’ coffers are overflowing with cash from unprecedented oil prices, there is no infrastructure or development program to supply sufficient heating fuel. Indeed, Iran imports a significant portion from Turkmenistan. There are even critics within Ahmadinejad’s government, who say Iran's production should have doubled current levels some two years ago.”

This should come as no surprise. We all know the ayatollahs are spending Iran's money elsewhere: funding a nuclear weapons program, financing the terror campaign against Coalition Forces and Iraqis, subsidizing terrorist groups of all stripes in the region and across the globe, and sustaining a gigantic intelligence and security apparatus at home to stifle the rising dissent.

Shortages have worsened in the wake of the dispute between Iran and Turkmenistan over imports of natural gas; Tehran is unwilling to pay market prices to Ashgabat. The current crisis arose when Ahmadinejad’s government cut the fuel supply to many provinces. Last week, Agence France Presse reported that nearly 90 Iranians were killed by gas leaks from faulty or badly installed domestic heaters. Desperate residents are putting the blame squarely on the regime, and several Iranian cities, including Qaemshahr and Gorgan in the north, have been the scenes of anti-government riots.

As usual, the regime’s officials are scrambling to deflect the public’s anger by blaming “the foreigners.” The ayatollahs and their Trans-Atlantic fan club reproach Washington and other capitals for promoting democracy and the rule of law. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the ayatollahs’ former president who — along with his extended family — is up to his eyeballs in corruption and plunder of Iran’s wealth, last Friday said foreign companies were responsible for the fuel crisis. As for the riots, he said "our enemies” are exploiting the situation. Meanwhile, political dissidents are being jailed by the hundreds.

The crisis underscores the ayatollahs’ vulnerability, particularly at home. For all their populist claims, the mullahs lack the capacity and will to fulfill the legitimate social, economic and political demands of Iranians. Cognizant of this inherent weakness, since coming to power in 1979, they built their regime on domestic suppression and crisis-making in the region and beyond. Their survival depends on it.

While the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) is the pillar of ayatollahs’ nuclear weapons drive and sponsorship of terrorism abroad, its main task — as stipulated many times by its leadership — is to guard the regime from Iran’s democratic opposition. A true translation of IRGC is “the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution.” Last September, IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari stressed that the "main responsibility" of the IRGC was to fight against "internal threats," reported the Christian Science Monitor in December. Quoting a regime’s analyst, it added that "The whole security environment is intended to really suffocate or torpedo any possible change from within.”

Acknowledging the regime’s internal fragility, a state-controlled daily wrote after last summer’s riots over gas rationing that “It does not matter what the event is: it could be a loss by the national soccer team, a sudden electricity blackout, a cut off of drinking water, or a sudden and unexpected rationing of fuel ... They all can spark riots ... Although most of these riots are put down after the security and military agencies intervene, every incident adds to the collective memory of the people, who will use it as capital or a learned experience for the next uprising.”

In Iran, there is a groundswell of dissent and desire for change. But despite the regime’s vulnerability, Iran’s democracy movement is being impeded by the severe restrictions imposed on the main opposition organization, designated as terrorist by the State Department nearly a decade ago. In June 2003, when students led a large anti-regime uprising, a European diplomat told Reuters, ''The pent-up anger is still there, beneath the surface. But for it to seriously take off you need a catalyst … you need organization and leadership.'' This is how the international community, many Members of U.S. Congress believe, can provide the biggest boost to democracy in Iran, by removing the legal and political shackles it has placed on Iran’s largest and most effective opposition, the People’s Mojahedin.

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Alireza Jafarzadeh is a FOX News Channel Foreign Affairs Analyst and the author of "The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Jafarzadeh has revealed Iran's terrorist network in Iraq and its terror training camps since 2003. He first disclosed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.

Prior to becoming a contributor for FOX, and until August 2003, Jafarzadeh acted for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is credited with exposing Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak in 2002, triggering International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. He is the author of "The Iran Threat" (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008). His email is Jafarzadeh@ncrius.org.