It's been a little weird, if not embarrassing, to witness the reactions of the American press to the Iranian election in the last 24 hours.
There was the initial rush of expectation--that "change" was as much in the Iranian air as it had been in the American last fall, an equivalence so wrong on so many fronts that it managed to obscure the essential truth of the Iranian election: there never was a significant ideological difference between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi. Only a tonal one. But the Los Angeles Times was content to blare this headline: "Iranians ready to decide presidency -- and maybe much more."
There was the added irony of the LATimes' sub-headline: "The winner will play a key role in possible talks over Iran's nuclear program and support for militant groups," the implication being that if Mousavi were the winner, maybe he'd rein back the militants. But it was Mousavi who, as Iran's prime minister in the 1980s, helped build those militant groups into international terrorist forces, sending money, weapons and manpower to Lebanon to beef up Hezbollah and telegraphing their targets, including that string of American and European hostages Hezbollah held for most of the decade---and Mousavi traded for, haggling over anti-tank missiles and money with Oliver North and Bud McFarlane, in the infamous Iran-contra affairs.
Still, the paper in Los Angeles, not to mention the New York Times and the Washington Post, have blithely referred to Mousavi as a "moderate" throughout the election campaign, accepting at face value his apparent conversion, if only because he kept his antipathy for the United States relatively silent.
But Slate's Samuel Rosner was closer to reality: The Iranian president isn't the one who decides Iran's fate, or foreign policy, or domestic policy, for that matter. It's Ali Khamenei, the "supreme leader," who does. But the big papers kept up the charade ("As Iran Votes, Talk of a Sea Change," went The New York Times), as if willing the fantasy.
The Times' executive editor, Bill Keller an old hand at foreign correspondence (he won a Pulitzer for somewhat blandish reporting from South Africa, if I'm remembering correctly) even sent himself to Tehran for a bit of trench writing (or to escape the fallout of his embarrassing performance in a Daily Show bit).
"[F]or those who dreamed of a gentler Iran," Keller wrote from Tehran, "Saturday was a day of smoldering anger, crushed hopes and punctured illusions, from the streets of Tehran to the policy centers of Western capitals. Iranians who hoped for a bit more freedom, a better managed economy and a less reviled image in the world wavered between protest and despair on Saturday."
All I can say is that they, and the amnesiac Western press, did it to themselves. A quarter of Iran's population is under 15, the median age is 26 (which means half the population is 26 or younger), which means the overwhelming majority of voters in Saturday's election have no memory of the 1980s when Mousavi was in charge of a country that was free neither economically nor in any other way. When others spoke of ending the Iran-Iraq war that had ravaged the country, Mousavi wailed, charging quitters that they were abandoning the ideals of the revolution.
This is the man the Kellers of the world so blindly put their hopes in.
So why was the West so self-deluded, both about Mousavi and the outcome of a foregone conclusion? I wish it was about misplaced hopes. No. It's something less honorable than that. It's about misplaced projections. It's about presuming that the West's agenda for Iran can somehow muscle its way over the agenda Iran reserves for itself. It's about reverting to pre-1979 assumptions that Iran would be as the West would want it to be. Which is to say that 30 years of history have taught the West next to nothing about Iran. That ignorance, those attitudes, those presumptions, are precisely why Iranians are still ready to vote for a man like Ahmadinejad, because for all his anti-Semitism, his belligerence, even his apparent stupidity on more than a few matters of state, he is the embodiment of an Iranian identity that brooks no imports, that needs no one else, certainly nothing western, not even (and above all not) Barack Obama, to define it. Mousavi would likely have been no different ideologically, but why chuck off a known quantity?
Reactionary editorial pages (what pages are left, anyway) will fold all over each other to claim that Iranians have embraced hate, that they've endorsed the destruction of Israel, that they've made their hostility clear. Stupid judgments, as I see them, if excusably America-centric: they're meant well. But they miss the point.
The point never has been for Iran to get a leadership the United States can deal with. That's the American perspective that's led nowhere for 30 years. The point is to get a leadership in the West willing to deal with whatever leadership Iran chooses for itself, on its own terms.
So here's where Obama's Norwuz message will prove its worth (or not). Here's where Obama gets to show the Iranian people that he meant what he said. That he wants a dialogue, not just with the Iranian people, but with the Iranian leadership. Especially one chosen by the Iranian people. (At some point all those allegations of fraud are going to have to make way for the reality: if the United States could survive the fraud of 2000, so can Iran in 2009, though chances are Iran's fraud is less obvious than that of Bush v. Gore).
Obama can, of course, punt. Decide that he now has an excuse not to deal with Iran. But he doesn't. He has even less of an excuse today than he did yesterday. Unless he wants to play the fraudulent-election card and go down that slink to perdition. Somehow I can't imagine him doing that. I can't imagine him thinking that he would be dealing with anyone but Ahmadinejad after the election anyway: he knew that bumping off Ahmadinejad was a long shot. He knew, or should have known, that even if Mousavi would have replaced him, the policy differences would have been nil. At least Ahmadinejad gives Obama, as Ahmadinejad does Khamenei, a foil, if things go wrong. And Ahmadinejad, freed of a elections' burden, could maybe find his inner Nixon and make the leap across ideologies.
Who knows. This could be as big or bigger (because more authentic) a chance for a breakthrough than either side imagined. If both sides are willing to seize it. Here's how Obama could start: send a congratulations message to Ahmadinejad. Then get to work.