A spectre is haunting America’s war party. Last week, Iranians went to the polls and surprisingly and unambiguously voted for the most moderate candidate, Hossan Rohani, an establishment cleric who campaigned on the need to improve Iran’s economy and end its diplomatic isolation. Rohani is the vehicle for disparate hopes—not least those of Green movement, suppressed after the 2009 election. One should note the weaknesses of an electoral system where prospective candidates are vetted by the government, but there is little doubt that Rohani’s victory represented a vast outpouring of popular discontent—and raised prospects for an eventual détente between Iran and the West. In their way, the peoples of both Iran and the United States have both spoken—in America first by rejecting the more belligerent candidacies of first McCain and then Romney in favor of Obama; in Iran choosing, probably in the 2009 and certainly last week, the least confrontational candidate available.
Rohani threatens to deny the war party their cartoon image of an Iranian “Hitler,” one which which had been painstakingly, if dishonestly, constructed from the undisciplined and belligerent musings of his populist predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rohani doesn’t have time to open his mouth before Jonathan Tobin of Commentary warns us that Iran remains a “totalitarian theocracy” and Obama better not “waste more time on sanctions and diplomacy” in an effort to end Iran’s nuclear program. (Tobin fails to explain that rather unique form of totalitarianism which allows meaningful competitive elections, nor does he mention which country in the Middle East has introduced to the region a huge nuclear arsenal.) Max Boot, also at Commentary, reminds readers that power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader, not with the president, an interpretation of Iranian political dynamic not stressed when Ahmadinejad was president. Jeffrey Goldberg chimes in that the Iranian election was “fake.” Tobin rails about “useful idiots”—the Times editorial board in this instance—who prefer diplomacy to war. But one can sense the fear in the neocons: the broad spectrum of Western opinion is inclined to think the Iranian election result might be a good, not a bad thing. One can be sure a vast research enterprise is underway to find a quote from Rohani’s past that expresses something other than sheer joy at Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians. An editor at the war-hungry Wall Street Journal is already accusing Rohani of encouraging the murder of dissident students in the 1990’s.
The panic reminds me of the one which pulsed through neoconservative ranks during the emergence of Gorbachev. Then the situation was more ambiguous—the Soviets didn’t allow elections. But the neocons were unanimous (or nearly: Joshua Muravchik was a notable, and solitary exception) in presenting Gorbachev as a greater threat than previous leaders because he seemed moderate, seemed to desire the turning of bad pages and exploring new possibilities. It was a core neoconservative tenet that Soviet totalitarianism was incapable of reform and forever on the march, and in selecting Gorbachev they had found a clever new tool to lull and trick the West. Norman Podhoretz published one column—I recall struggling to write an appropriate headline for it—devoted to the Soviet leader’s devilish and mendacious smile. The danger of course was that Ronald Reagan would drop his guard, which he did, finding Gorbachev’s desire to move past the Cold War altogether credible.
In holding this election, the mullah’s regime in Iran, with all its obvious brutality and structural flaws, has already proved itself more “democratic” than the dictatorship the United States imposed upon Iran for a generation after 1953. Not surprisingly, many Iranians remember this. I don’t know whether Obama has the fortitude to explore the Iranian people’s peace overture—because it is they who made an unambiguous election choice—or whether he will bow to various Beltway hawks. But the existence of popular will on both sides for something other than continued confrontation seems impossible to deny.
And the nuclear issue: it seems to me making a core value of American policy that Israel should have hundreds of nuclear weapons and its regional neighbors not even the right to enrich uranium will always be perceived as inherently unjust, and thus inherently unstable. Margaret Thatcher, expressing frustration at Israel’s efforts to stonewall the peace process once told a Times interviewer “[Y]ou cannot demand for yourself what you deny to other people.” The same principle can be applied to Israel’s and Iran’s respective nuclear programs.