Once again Iran, which has been a permanent fixture on the regional and international agenda due to its maverick politics, ambitious plans and its nuclear programme, in addition to its increasing interference in Arab affairs, is dominating the news - but for different reasons.

This time it is Iran's disputed presidential election and its controversial results that are challenging the establishment's revolutionary credentials and dividing the country.

It is not clear whether Iran, which is facing the most serious challenge to its theocracy since 1979, is witnessing an uprising associated with complaints about a rigged election - a common occurrence in Third World politics - or the beginning of a velvet 'green revolution'.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, has blamed the US and Britain, along with other foreign 'enemies', for trying to foment unrest.

He is determined that Iran will not undergo a revolution similar to those that transformed the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The jury is still out as to what to make of Iran's bizarre politics, uprisings and demonstrations. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has contemptuously dismissed the protesters as "dirt and dust". Unsurprisingly, this only provoked the demonstrators further.

The protests broke out after the news that Ahmadinejad clinched more than 60 per cent of the vote. This set the stage for a showdown unseen since the Islamic revolution unseated the Shah three decades ago.

Iran has since entered a state of flux, highlighted by outbursts of civil disobedience, demonstrations and mourning over slain students.

The opposition camp is led by the moderate conservative presidential candidate and former prime minister Mir Hussain Mousavi, who according to the official results got less than one-third of the vote. He is challenging these results and has called for a second election to be held.

Khamenei, who has the final say in political and religious affairs, has quashed any hope for a peaceful settlement. In his highly anticipated sermon on Friday the Supreme Leader sided with Ahmadinejad, saying the election was fair and had resulted in a "definitive victory".

He dismissed the accusations of vote-rigging. "There is an 11-million-vote difference. How can one rig 11 million votes?" he asked. The Supreme Leader further praised the election as an "epic moment that became a historic moment".

The Ayatollah made no concessions to the opposition and sternly warned the protesters and their leaders to refrain from agitation.

He said they should refer their complaints to the Guardian Council and use constitutional means within the confines of the cleric-led ruling system, rather than causing chaos with mass demonstrations.

The Guardian Council will deal with more than 650 election complaints and there has been no indication that a fresh election will take place.

The West's reaction to the unfolding Iranian crisis is telling. US President Barack Obama, who has come under a barrage of criticism from the Republicans and conservative commentators for his initial silence, has been forced to speak out.

Obama, who had previously said he wants to see Iran's leaders unclench their fists, has been very careful with his words.

Last Monday he said he was "deeply troubled by the irregularities" and "could not state definitely what happened". Following Khamenei's Friday sermon, Obama condemned the violence in Iran and blamed the Iranian authorities for it.

In short, as Anthony Cordesman aptly put it, the struggles in Iran will continue to be an internal issue. Even if Mousavi had won the election, he would not have been able to alter Iran's grandiose and ambitious agenda.

Given Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and its influence in the region "& even the most dramatic change [in the country] may not make a critical difference to the security and stability of the region".

Regardless of how things pan out in Iran, the end result of this major challenge from within to the government and its legitimacy will be far-reaching.

Whether this episode leads to a velvet revolution, or turns out to be just a "dirt and dust" storm that blows away, there will be consequences for Iran.

Ahmadinejad has won a disputed victory and his mandate has been weakened, which might jeopardise the chances of rapprochement with the US. This could prompt Iran to lash out and does not bode well for either the country or our region.

Iran's soft power has been dealt a blow. How things unfold will determine not only Ahmadinejad's future, but also that of the country.

Dr Abdullah Al Shayji is a professor of international relations and the head of the American Studies Unit at Kuwait University.