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Joe Klein’s Courage: Iran and the Prospect of “Reset”

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The most important media event of a very eventful week was, without doubt, Joe Klein’s appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Klein came on the morning Americans learned four of its diplomats had been killed in Libya, and that the embassy in Cairo was besieged. Israel’s deputy speaker of the Knesset had been on earlier, trying to foment an American war against Iran.

Klein began by addressing Israeli efforts to ignite a war and meddle in the US elections, which he called “outrageous” and “disgusting”–like nothing he had seen in 40 years of journalism. It is worth interjecting here that Klein, now with Time, is no conventional liberal; I first came to know his work 20 years ago when he wrote for New York magazine and was–we at the very conservative NYPost editorial page understood–the one “mainstream” media figure most willing to tell truths uncongenial to the liberal narratives about the schools, or crime in the city, or New York City politics in general.

But more important than Klein’s unequivocal condemnation of Netanyahu’s warmongering and election meddling was his nuanced discussion of Iran, a subject which never receives other than one-dimensional treatment in the American mass media. Klein said several times that Iran was (in implicit contrast to the riotous cities of the Arab world) “a real country” with a highly-educated populace living in high rise apartments, not in tents. Nowhere in the world was there a greater mismatch between the population–sophisticated, somewhat pro-American–and the government. But the government, despite its anti-Americanism and fascist tendencies, was not crazy. All Iranians were under the influence of the dominant civil fact–that Iran took a million casualties in its decade-long war against Iraq, and wouldn’t risk a repeat of that.

Asked repeatedly by Morning Joe’s Donny Deutsch to say what would happen if we woke up one day next year to the news that Iran had, indeed, developed a bomb, Klein gave the kind of understated, lucid and factual answer that is so far removed from our present fevered discourse that it should probably be understood as an example of unusual courage: “It would provide protection for Iran against an Israeli attack or an American attack.” That might be an answer you would hear from an international relations specialist, or a top ranking military officer– but nowhere else before an American mass audience.

The entire segment bears watching, as it raises the question of why should Iran be our big number one enemy at all, period. A full history of the making of Iran into a major foe  remains to be written, though it surely owes much to Israeli and neoconservative  ideological machinations at the end of the Cold War, when Islam and the clash of civilizations was substituted for communism as our unifying source of all fears. If  Iran’s nuclear program was rational and not the prologue to armageddon, and its people are  sophisticated and pro-American, the obvious next question is whether Iran–as opposed to medieval Saudi Arabia for instance–needs to be treated as an enemy at all. During the segment Mike Barnicle chipped in to say that former senator Bob Kerrey speaks of Iran as “America’s most natural ally” in the Middle East. It is an argument made in the very interesting book Reset by Stephen Kinzer. It is worth recalling that Iran was the only place in the Middle East where there were spontaneous expressions of grief after 9/11–Teheran’s citizens took to the streets in candlelight vigils. In the months to follow, there was substantial intelligence cooperation between Iran and the US, as Washington went after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. That was brought to halt, regrettably: The neocons in the Bush administration had a different agenda, and turned their attention to Iraq. And Iran after all was a potential rival to Israel’s military domination of the Middle East.

But looking at the fevered crowds whipped up throughout the Middle East (which are more or less absent in Teheran) it does raise the question of rapprochement. Klein has begun to sketch out a normative and cultural foundation for such an event. For TV newstalk, it was an exceptional moment.

about the author

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottMcConnell9.

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