To paraphrase an old axiom: If you can’t beat ’em, pre-empt ’em. For more than a week, the streets in Tehran and dozens of other cities in Iran have filled with protestors demanding an end to the mullahcracy and a new liberal democracy in its place. Local police forces have not had much effect on curbing the unrest despite having made hundreds of arrests and using violence to make their point.

Today the government tried something new — getting to the streets first:

Tens of thousands of Iranians took part in pro-government demonstrations in several cities across the country on Wednesday, Iranian state media reported, a move apparently seeking to calm nerves after a week of protests and unrest that have killed at least 21 people.

While the rallies showed support among Iran’s 80 million people for its clerically overseen government, smaller and smaller towns in the Iranian countryside appear to be experiencing the unrest that has already swept through urban areas, according to protesters’ online videos.

It was totes spontaneous, too:

On Wednesday, state TV reported that demonstrations took place in dozens of cities and towns, including Ahvaz, the capital of the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, the Kurdish town of Kermanshah in the country’s west and Qom, the religions capital of Shiite Islam in Iran.

Demonstrators carried pre-printed signs and Iranian flags, with state TV offering a swooping helicopter shot in Ahvaz to show their scale. Ahvaz and the wider Khuzestan province is home to many ethnic Arabs and has seen unrest amid the protests.

The intended implicit message? Look at us — we’re popular! If that was the case, though, the mullahs would have to run for office in free and fair elections rather than rig them to produce the government they fully control.

The actual implicit message this sends sounds more like Look at us — we’re desperate! A Fox News exclusive report of an allegedly leaked secret document from Iran makes that claim a bit more explicit:

A leaked report provided to Fox News shows how Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with political leaders and heads of the country’s security forces to discuss how to tamp down on the deadly nationwide protests.

The report covered several meetings up to December 31 and was provided to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) from what it said were high level sources from within the regime.

The meeting notes, which have been translated into English from Farsi, said the unrest has hurt every sector of the country’s economy and “threatens the regime’s security. The first step, therefore, is to find a way out of this situation.”

The report added, “Religious leaders and the leadership must come to the scene as soon as possible and prevent the situation (from) deteriorating further.” It continued, “God help us, this is a very complex situation and is different from previous occasions.”

This seems a bit too on-the-nose to credit, doesn’t it? The NCRI has some incentives to show the mullahs as weak and vacillating in order to encourage more protestors into the streets, which could make it a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. On the other hand, the details do seem consistent with the reality on the ground too. Assuming this is legit, it also explains why Iranians have not yet had to deal with the Revolutionary Guard:

The notes added that the intelligence division of the feared Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is “monitoring the situation” and “working all in coordination to prevent protests.”

It says that a “red alert” has not yet been declared, which would lead to direct military intervention in the protests. But it then predicted that sending IRGC or the Bassij forces would “backfire” and would further “antagonize the protesters.”

Even if it’s not authentic, that certainly describes the reality of dealing with a popular uprising. One can send the tanks into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, to use a couple of Cold War comparisons, but not without sacrificing the pretensions of popular support. That’s why the regime is now trying counter-protests and leveraging their control of the media to frame their political support as more powerful than the dissent.

If they have to send the IRGC to violently destroy the protests in the streets, then they lose those pretensions entirely and permanently, especially their pretense of religious blessing for their “Islamic republic.” They will have exposed the reality that Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution merely traded one Shah for another and left Iran more isolated and backward than ever.

Make no mistake, though — if it comes down to the mullahs and the street justice coming for them, they will deploy the IRGC. If they wait too long to do so, they may not have much of an IRGC to deploy, however. At some point, the IRGC’s rank and file will see the writing on the wall and disappear. The mullahs will only be able to ask for God’s help at that point, but would be more likely to face His judgment.