Politics may make strange bedfellows but some of the reactions to the turmoil in Iran have been more than a little bizarre. In the weeks preceding the presidential election there, and even in the days after the results appear to have been cooked in favor of incumbent extremist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, some Israelis and their friends abroad were quoted as saying that they hoped this Holocaust denier would hold onto his post.
Given that Ahmadinejad has become the most notorious living anti-Semite, that's quite a turn of events. The Iranian leader has rocketed to fame around the world largely on the basis of his Holocaust denial, his stated desire to wipe Israel off the map and his open pursuit of a nuclear weapon to make good on that threat. But there's little doubt that as Iranians prepared to choose a new leader many Jews were hoping that reformist challengers would fall short in their quest to replace Ahmadinejad. The reason for this was simple: a belief that Ahmadinejad made it easier to persuade the international community that action on Iran was an imperative.
Worries about Iran were compounded by the victory of Barack Obama in last year's American presidential contest. Though, like his opponents, Obama vowed to stop Iran, he also made it clear that he would talk to the Iranians without preconditions. Once he was in office "engagement" with Tehran became the order of the day leaving many thinking this meant Obama was headed toward acceptance of Iranian nukes once they became a fait accompli. The only barrier to this outcome was the presence of the ubiquitous Ahmadinejad, a man whose repulsive anti-Semitism and comments about the Holocaust, gays and hatred for the West rendered "engagement" with Iran an unsavory policy. Thus, it was not exactly a secret that Washington was hoping Iranian voters would elect an alternative to the incumbent in the June presidential election. The election was far from free since presidential candidates were vetted by the clerics that run the country. Nevertheless, a more attractive front man for the Islamist tyranny would make it easier to sell an American decision to back away from pledges never to accept an Iranian nuclear capability.
Western media coverage of the Iranian campaign seemed to validate these expectations. Accounts of rallies for Mir Hussein Moussavi, Ahmadinejad's most visible opponent, showed a side of Iranian society that was different from the extremist image of the country. Indeed, apologists for the Iranian government, such as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, had spent the preceding months promoting the notion that attempts to pressure Iran was merely the result of misguided pressure from supporters of Israel. Cohen, a virulent critic of Israel, stood out from others who sought to sell "engagement" due to his columns that paraded the comments of Iran's captive Jewish community testifying to the supposedly liberal nature of the anti-Semitic regime. Moussavi's popularity seemed to justify Cohen's thesis that fears about Iranian extremism were overblown.
Thus, it was little surprise that many supporters of Israel viewed the prospect of a Moussavi victory with trepidation and went out of their way to point out that he did not differ from Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue or even about Iran's policy of spreading terrorism through its Hezbollah and Hamas allies.
However, hopes for a new face to rationalize engagement with Iran were dashed by the election. It appears that Iran's clerical overlords, in particular its Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein Khameini, were worried about the possibility that the popularity of Moussavi's appeal might actually represent a tipping point in the history of the regime. Their decision to announce a suspiciously lopsided victory for Ahmadinejad and to brutally suppress massive protest demonstrations reflects not only their determination to maintain their grip on power but also the strength of support for genuine change in Iran as opposed to mere sympathy for one candidate over another.
These dramatic events altered the debate about Iran. Even Roger Cohen, whose reports reflected his shock at the fact that Iran's regime turned out to be far less liberal than he had foolishly supposed it to be, recognized that engagement with it was no longer a possibility in the near future. And though the United States was conspicuously silent in the first week after the election, after accounts of increasingly bloody attacks on demonstrators were broadcast, even the engager-in-chief Barack Obama found himself in a position where he had to strongly condemn Iran.
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the election, some of those who had been critical of Iran all along were sounding a cynical note. Jerusalem Post columnist Douglas Bloomfield, a well-known liberal Jewish commentator and lobbyist in Washington wrote about how Ahmadinejad's "victory" was good for Israel. Meir Dagan, the head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency told a Knesset committee that Moussavi would have presented a problem for Israel since it would have made it harder to enlist international support for sanctions against Iran.
These two prominent voices were, of course, doing no more than stating the obvious when they said that Ahmadinejad's reputation was a handicap for Iran. But they were wrong to speak as if Ahmadinejad was "good" for Israel and not only because such open cynicism reflects bad judgment about how to make the case against the Islamist tyranny.
This kind of thinking shows a failure to understand that the true interests of Israel lie not so much in being able to have a Hitler apologist as the representative of its most dangerous enemy but in the potential for changing the nature of that foe. A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel and poses a danger to the rest of the Middle East as well as the West. But what the demonstrations in Iran prove is that it doesn't have to be that way.
First, let's not kid ourselves about our ability to mobilize the world against Ahmadinejad, no matter how outrageous his conduct may be. Were it not for the courage of the Iranian protestors Obama would have never backed away from engagement with Ahmadinejad. Even the Iranian's worst excesses were never enough to mobilize international opinion for tough sanctions, let alone the use of force to halt Iran's nuclear program. Those who harp on his unpopularity are overestimating their ability to sell a tough stand on Iran at a time when most people would rather ignore it. The key to a change in that equation isn't Ahmadinejad; it's the people in Tehran's streets.
Iran's potent mix of religion and nationalism, fueled in part by the regime's libels about America and Israel for decades, cannot be dismissed. Yet the liberal aspects of Iranian society that were wrongly represented by apologists like Cohen as a reason not to fear Ahmadinejad or the mullahs do exist. If allowed to flourish they could become a building block for an Iran that is no longer at war with the West or the Jews.
Rather than giving a backhanded three cheers for Ahmadinejad's ability to hold on to his office, Israelis and their friends abroad should be expressing support for those who are fighting against him. Those intent on appeasement of Ahmadinejad have attempted to claim that any foreign statements against the regime will discredit its critics. But this is giving too much credit to the ayatollahs and too little to its foes. Now is the time to understand that even though the Islamists are not prepared to loosen their grip on power, their opponents must be encouraged and made to feel that the civilized world is banking on their eventual triumph.
It isn't clear whether a genuine resistance movement can be nurtured under the current circumstances or whether material foreign assistance will be useful. But what is apparent is that when Iran's people take to the streets, their Islamist overlords tremble. Rather than expressing satisfaction about Ahmadinejad's "landslide," what those most fearful of a nuclear threat must concentrate on is an effort to support those calling for change within Iran.