Dashing Fabricated Hopes: The Meaning of Ahmadinejad's Victory

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

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

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.

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