Commentary: Iran's regime is feeling pressured

The walls are closing in on the rulers of Iran. You can almost sense their heart rate grow faster, their neck muscles tense and the adrenaline in their veins driving them to take ever more-dangerous actions.

The dominant factions in the Islamic Republic have lost the support of the people. The ever larger opposition, with astonishingly timid support from the West, refuses to be intimidated. Many in the West, meanwhile, appear to at last be ready to confront a regime that just took another major step towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Iran's leaders look like wounded, cornered tigers, roaring and pacing, ready to lunge.

Once upon a time, Iran offered itself as an inspiring example of People Power for Muslims living under oppressive regimes. Now Iranians have reclaimed that place, with a massive movement of common people, disenchanted with their rulers, demanding change. The pressure is coming from within and without.

In order to survive the double onslaught, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and their supporters of the Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guards are employing their own two-pronged strategy. Tehran is cracking down hard on the opposition, and it is doubling down on the nuclear program, hoping to rally domestic support and ultimately make itself the most powerful country in the Muslim world.

The latest decision to step up uranium enrichment fooled no one. After months of making a mockery of President Obama's conciliatory approach and toying with the international community's offer to swap Iran's low-enriched uranium for higher-grade uranium, Iran announced it would move ahead with its own stepped-up program.

Obama, who made respectful diplomacy with Iran the cornerstone of his foreign policy, rejected Iran's claim that it does not seek nuclear weapons. "They, in fact, continue to pursue a course that would lead to weaponization," Obama said after Ahmadinejad announced the order to increase the grade of its uranium stockpiles from the 3 percent used for energy to the 20 percent needed for medical uses.

Scientists tell us that after that, it's a simple and rather quick procedure to obtain weapons-grade uranium.

Not far from it all stands Israel, watching the showdown, mindful that Iran has made "A World without Israel" the ominous backdrop to its nuclear program. Contrary to what some believe, Israel is not pushing for war. Just a few days ago, in a meeting with European diplomats, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his call for tough, immediate sanctions.

Celebrating the revolution's 31st anniversary on Thursday, Ahmadinejad told supporters that, "We have the capability to enrich uranium more than 20 percent or 80 percent." Then he revealed what comes next. "If one day we wanted to build nuclear bombs we would announce it publicly without being afraid of you." If nothing changes, that announcement will come.

Iran's regime has built, funded and supported the most extremist organizations in the Middle East, promoting violence and backing those who oppose compromise and reconciliation. Iran has become one of the most destabilizing forces in the region, deliberately stoking conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis, between Arabs and Israelis. Iran has made every problem in the Middle East worse. And that was before its nuclear plans came to light.

Arabs are terrified that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. Israelis say they could not tolerate it. In Iran, the movement that started as a protest against a stolen election has been joined by a middle class fed up with a mismanaged economy, young people tired of moralistic restrictions and even clerics and former revolutionaries disgusted with the country's direction.

President Obama is now more focused on domestic than international issues, but Iran will inevitably prove a defining issue in his presidency. It is no exaggeration to say that his actions on Iran will do much to shape history's course.

The coming weeks will bring ever rising stakes in this drama of many actors. A tense regime will do what it thinks it takes to survive. That will mean more ruthlessness towards the opposition, and more defiance of the international community.

The opposition has shown itself willing to stand up despite the crackdown. As for the West, Europe and the United States seem ready to shift from engagement to sanctions, but it is far from certain that sanctions will work to change the behavior of a cornered regime pumped with religious fervor and revolutionary zeal, not to mention invigorating adrenaline -- and enriched uranium.