by Mitchell Plitnick
Outside of Iran, there is no doubt that the biggest losers in Iran’s election this past weekend were the Likud government in Israel and its supporters, especially neoconservatives, in the United States.
The response of Israel’s Prime Minister to the election of centrist candidate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s next President was almost comical in its sharp reversal from the rhetoric of the past eight years. As was widely reported, Benjamin Netanyahu said that it was Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not the president who set nuclear policy.
That is, of course, true, and it is precisely what opponents of an attack on Iran have been saying for the past eight years. Netanyahu and his neocon allies, on the other hand, were repeatedly pointing to outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the fearsome specter, the man who wanted to “wipe Israel off the map” and must be prevented from acquiring the means to do so. With Ahmadinejad gone, and, much to the surprise of many observers, not replaced by someone from the arch-conservative (or, in Iranian political terms, principlist) camp, the hawks have lost their best tool for frightening people and getting them behind the idea of attacking Iran.
So, Netanyahu has stepped up his push for a hard line on Iran, saying, “The international community must not become caught up in wishful thinking and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program.” Netanyahu is admitting that all the rhetoric around Ahemdinejad was insincere, and that the Iranian president is only relevant insofar as his visage can be used to whip people into a frenzy behind his call for war.
He has plenty of support in the United States. As the Iranian election results were coming in on Saturday, the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Josh Block of The Israel Project and other, similar sources tweeted incessantly about how meaningless the elections were. Ahmadinejad was exactly what the hawks wanted, an Iranian leader who displayed fiery rhetoric, was confrontational with the West and expressed hostility toward Israel and even Jews more broadly (though his frequently cited statement about wiping Israel off the map was fabricated, he did host a conference of leading Holocaust deniers, for instance, among other incidents). Rouhani, a man determined to project an air of reasonableness, makes the drumbeat for war harder to sustain.
Recognizing this, Netanyahu, his friends at Commentary Magazine, and similar extremists have warned against getting “caught up in wishful thinking” regarding Rouhani. Already, there have been declarations that Israel’s hoped-for attack on Iran has been set back by at least another year. And even the tentative, merely polite response from US President Barack Obama has been met with apoplexy from the radical hawks.
So, what does Rouhani mean for US and Israeli policy? Of course, it is very true, as opponents of war on Iran have been saying for years, that the Supreme Leader, not the President, makes the major decisions in Iran. But, just as the Likud/Neocon campaign to use Ahmadinejad as the face of Iran was disingenuous, so too is their current attempt to contend that the Iranian president, and this election is meaningless.
The Iranian President is not like the Israeli one or the British monarchy; that is, it is not a merely ceremonial role. As we have seen repeatedly, the President of Iran handles quite a bit of the public diplomacy of the Islamic Republic, and he has considerable influence over domestic issues, appointments and other facets of government. When the Iranian people made their choice, it was far from a meaningless one.
One event, prior to the election, was particularly telling. A few days before, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on all Iranians to vote. This was not just a “get out the vote” pitch, as we see so often in the United States. After the events of 2009, there was, quite understandably, widespread cynicism among moderates and reformists in Iran. Khamenei drove the point home by encouraging even those who “do not support the Islamic system” to cast their ballots. The result was a fantastically high voter turnout: 72.7% according to the Iranian Interior Ministry, a figure that was supported by virtually all reports from the ground. Combined with the eleventh hour joining of forces behind Rouhani, this turned into a mandate for centrism over the hardline conservative views that Khamenei himself holds and that have dominated Iranian politics for most of the past decade.
While it’s a little much to assume that Khamenei’s call to vote would bring victory to a man who, while hardly a radical reformist, clearly sees things differently than Iran’s Supreme Leader, he surely knew it was a possibility. Why would he do that?
The events of 2009 are quite likely the answer. The contested presidential election of that year, and the protests, violence and national schism it produced did a lot of harm to Khamenei and Iran. The interior breech has not yet healed; more than that, the Green Movement and the Islamic Republic’s response damaged Iran in the international arena. It made it much easier to ratchet up the calls for war in the US (even if they have not reached the tipping point Netanyahu and his neocon friends hoped) and, with the subsequent events of the Arab Awakening, it undermined Iran’s efforts to usurp Saudi Arabia’s position in the region. Instead of the image Iran wants to portray — that of an Islamic Republic whose 1979 revolution threw off Western domination — it appeared more like the Arab regimes whose time seems to have finally run out.
There can be little doubt that Khamenei’s willingness to risk a new president who holds different views about Iran’s domestic politics and international strategy was meant to address those wounds from 2009. And therein lies the real opportunity.
Rouhani was elected by promising to fix the economy, improve Iran’s international standing, including with the West, and relaxing some social laws. Both of the first two are inseparable from the standoff with the US and Israel. How far is Khamenei willing to go to break that impasse?
On Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Iran was willing to stop its enrichment of uranium to 20% levels, if “substantial reciprocal steps” were forthcoming. No doubt, the hawks consider this more deception, but Rouhani has also called for greater transparency for the Iranian nuclear program as well.
This is a real opportunity, and one that the United States and Europe must explore to the fullest. If the hawks are right, then this is the easiest way to prove that. Which, conversely, makes it all the more encouraging that Iran seems to be making the first move toward accommodation.
This is not speculation that Khamenei has suddenly had a radical shift in outlook. After all, his call to vote came after the usual politicking, and political shenanigans, that trims the list of candidates to one that the Guardian Council, and by extension, Khamenei approves of. Still, that list included not only Rouhani, but also Mohammadreza Aref, a reform-minded candidate than Rouhani who withdrew voluntarily to increase Rouhani’s chances of winning.
And it is not at all difficult to believe that, after eight years of increasing tension, declining Iranian prestige in the Middle East and an economy reeling under the weight of Western sanctions, Khamenei may wish to pursue a new strategy, one which holds the possibility of reversing those trends and perhaps resolving, or at least significantly ameliorating, some of the vexing problems that Iran faces and which, eventually, could destabilize his regime.
It is perfectly sensible, politically. Now is the time for Barack Obama to close his ears to a Congress that frames the issue as an Iranian choice between war and total capitulation and ignores even the experts it calls to its hearings, in favor of Netanyahu’s paranoia, and his lunatic demands. Obama has an opportunity to test Iranian intentions right away, and very possibly, to march the region back from yet another bloody misadventure.
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