Just how “cornered” is the oppressive ruling theocracy in Iran? With hundreds now in prison and an acknowledged death toll of 21, the demonstrations by the long-oppressed Iranian people, president Hassan Rouhani has taken to television to ask for “calm.” The US gains some political capital for another look at sanctions from Western nations, potentially sticking the mullahs in a vice. The Wall Street Journal reports that the combination has left Ali Khameini and his theocratic elite into a corner:

The biggest wave of protests to hit Iran in almost a decade has backed the country’s leaders into a corner, and the Trump administration is increasing the pressure by threatening fresh sanctions if the government forcefully cracks down on the demonstrations. …

New U.S. sanctions could target the Revolutionary Guard Corps—a force answerable only to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei —in an effort to avoid doing economic harm to the Iranians who are carrying out the protests, U.S. officials said.

The Trump administration is also lobbying nations to support the right of Iranians to carry out peaceful protests, U.S. officials said.

It’s the toughest spot for the Iranian mullahs in eight years when the “Green Revolution” first threatened their hold on power. That erupted after a laughably rigged election allowed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to retain the presidency but quickly snowballed into a broad wave of discontent over the absolute rule of the mullahs. It petered out after the Obama administration went out of its way to recognize the election results and signal a willingness to work with the mullahs.

The Trump administration is offering a much different response this time. Does that effect a “cornering” seen by the WSJ? There are reasons to consider this wishful thinking. For one thing, we’re not seeing the full response from the mullahs. Until now, the Revolutionary Guard has largely been absent from the crackdown, AFP reports, leaving local police forces to deal with the protests. Now they’ve begun to rattle their sabers as the situation grows more serious, promising to “finish” any popular uprising that threatens the mullahs:

The unrest appears leaderless and focused on provincial towns and cities, with only small and sporadic protests in Tehran on Monday evening where a heavy police presence was reported.

As violence has spread, authorities have stepped up arrests, with at least 450 people detained in the capital since Saturday and 100 more around Isfahan on Monday, officials told local media.

A Revolutionary Guards spokesman said there was no need for them to intervene directly, but they requested the public to report “seditionist elements”.

“We will not permit insecurity to continue in any way in Tehran. If it continues, officials will take decisions to finish it,” said Esmail Kowsari, a deputy commander for a local branch of the Revolutionary Guards, on state television.

The mullahs are already sending up warning flares about this being an outside threat rather than organic domestic unrest:

That’s the kind of pretext that the mullahs will need to unleash the Revolutionary Guard Corps on civilians in the streets. As the WSJ also notes, the IRGC does not answer to Hassan Rouhani, either; they answer directly to Khameini, and their mission is to protect and sustain the mullahs and their policies. At some point, the police state will spring into action, and it might just “finish it.”

On the other hand, that act has consequences of its own. The Western nations that have been pressuring Trump to stick with the deal cut by Barack Obama will have a much tougher time selling that policy at home while Iran’s military is mowing down demonstrators in the streets. Even Russia and China might not be able to look the other way if massacres ensue, which would open Iran up for renewed sanctions at the UN.

That points up another weakness. These demonstrations began with unhappiness over the moribund Iranian economy, which has been utterly mismanaged by the mullahs even with improved access to markets and the return of $1.4 trillion in assets. Renewed sanctions will make matters even worse. The mullahs could hold off an uprising in the short run, but eventually, the need to keep imposing brutal force to hold onto power will erode morale within the IRGC and other arms of their police state.

Right now, Rouhani is the mullah’s best bet to get out of the crisis cheaply. If he can show progress on economic growth and control of inflation after making some short-term concessions, some of the momentum in the streets could be blunted. Otherwise, get ready for things to get bloody in Iran. Again.