Raw numbers don't mean very much in the Middle East, where running into the streets to demonstrate, usually but not always against the Great Satan, is the national sport. It's more fun than evening prayers at the mosque.
What is impressive is the simple fact of the outpouring of popular sentiment in Tehran. Lifting even a finger to mock the indifference and arrogance of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Impertinence Be Upon Him), or even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Palaver Be Upon Him), is asking for a hard thump on the head, or worse. Usually much worse.
So only a churl would rain on the parade of the brave and the bold, but a realist can see the limits of the romantic view of what's going on inside Iran. The most important of the losing candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was no doubt cheated of many votes - maybe enough to have been cheated out of the presidency. But as sad as that is, the greater danger for America and the West is that the boiling rage in the streets will divert attention from what's most crucial, most urgent and most important. Stopping the Iranian bomb, not correcting theft of an election, is what counts most.
Indulging the romantic view of the rage diverts attention from Iran's nuclear scientists, who continue to build centrifuges and enrich uranium on the way to developing a bomb, by most estimates a year away. This seems finally to have occurred to Barack Obama, who imagines that his golden tongue is more than a match for anything the radical Muslims can build to throw at America and the West.
Mr. Obama first talked of the outpouring of Iranian grief and wrath as if the demonstrations were merely the work of an overly zealous community organizer. Vice President Joe Biden, always eager to share his manifold speculations and apprehensions, conceded "doubts" about the "official" results, but said the Obama administration just "wasn't prepared to say" whether the election was free and fair. By the time Mr. Obama got home from a round of golf later that day, his admiration for "robust debate" had faded to "troubled." But he could muster only an implied apology for President Eisenhower's meddling in Iran more than a half-century earlier. Nobody does apologies better than the One.
Perhaps the crowds merely got a little more worked up than they should have by the "robust debate." Mr. Obama had sometimes seen that happen in Chicago, where he, too, was a community organizer. But then he realized that not only had his flippant dismissal of the demonstrations angered nearly everybody at home, but he was missing an opportunity to help himself. By keeping the focus on the brutal suppression of the demonstrators, he could put off a little longer dealing with an Iranian bomb.
Jaw-jaw is always preferable to war-war, as Winston Churchill famously said, but it's difficult to imagine how even such a prolific talker as Mr. Obama can talk his way out of the dilemma in the Middle East. He probably can't get tougher sanctions from the freeloaders at the U.N., for whatever good that might do. The Russians and the Chinese are ready to protect Mr. Ahmadinejad's interests there. He doesn't want to praise democracy too much, lest it sound like a call for regime change. That would vindicate George W. Bush.
The rage in Tehran's streets suggests that time may be running out for a brutal regime, but that same clock is ticking for Barack Obama and what to do about the Iranian bomb. A reprise of the Cairo speech won't work; the Muslims are masters of endless, empty rhetoric themselves, and know how to figure the discount on words. The consequences of taking out the Iranian nuclear works, or enabling Israel to do it for him, would be awful, exceeded only by the consequences of allowing the mullahs in Tehran to get their bomb. Then everybody in Arabia would want one. The Saudis would buy one from Pakistan; certain intelligence sources say a deal is already in the works to deliver it once an Iranian bomb is in place. If the Shi'ites have a bomb, it's only logical, as logic is measured in that miserable corner of the world, for the Sunnis to get one. Every thuggish eighth-century theocracy must be fully armed.
The implications are frightening and easily measured, even by a timid White House. Mutually assured destruction kept the Cold War confrontation between Washington and Moscow in check, with one or two close calls, because both East and West had something to lose. The prospect of Sunnis and Shi'ites shooting it out with nuclear weapons, with nothing to lose but each other, is not a happy one. Dealing with it will require something with more firepower than a teleprompter.