Before the Iranian election, many in the Jewish community and Israel were saying that it would be better for Israel if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were re-elected than if his opponent Mir Hussein Moussavi were to triumph. The argument was simple: The real power lies with the clerics, particularly the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, so it would be better to have a ranting anti-Semite as president who would make it easy for people to see the evil that is the Islamic regime than to have a softer voice in the presidency, which might lead to unjustified complacency about the threat from Iran. This even went as far as the joke circulating that Israel could not have had a greater asset than Ahmadinejad and his rhetoric had it even placed a spy high up in the regime.
And now, after an election that apparently was fraudulent, there are still some who are suggesting that that logic applies, even more so because if Ahmadinejad emerges from the current turmoil as president, not only will he be tainted but the whole system of clerical rule will be as well. If Moussavi emerges, it is argued, the fundamental elements of the Iranian regime would be intact and despite the blows to their image because of the fraud and the crackdown, they will in time recover while still being a nuclear threat to Israel.
These assumptions require re-examination in light of the dynamic situation on the ground. The truth is no one knows how this crisis will turn out. Experts in the media and elsewhere are positing a wide range of scenarios, and anyone worth his or her salt will avoid predictions in this volatile environment.
What one can fairly say, however, is that no one can look at Iran the same ever again, and whatever scenario emerges, there should be far more room to affect Iranian policy for the better, whether by pressure or by incentives or both.
If Ahmadinejad remains in office through the intimidation or massive use of force by the regime, the brutality of the authorities will be embedded in the consciousness of the world in a way that should make it impossible to even consider a notion that was starting to take hold – that we may have to live with an Iranian bomb. The irrationality and extremism of the regime on display before the world, despite the effort to close off any media coverage, should make illusions about Iran impossible to sustain. Look at the poster boy for such illusions, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who before the election was playing the role of public relations guru for the regime through a series of milquetoast opinion pieces. Now he sees the emperor has no clothes and, shamelessly, writes about the horrors that are taking place as if he had never been the regime’s advocate.
As to American policy, if Ahmadinejad is still around, that should require the administration to rethink its commitment of engagement with the regime. While many were questioning this approach before the current crisis, the argument could then be made that there could be a sound purpose to such engagement. Either it might produce the highly unlikely result of an agreement by the Iranians to suspend or slow down the country’s march toward a nuclear weapon or it would expose the regime’s intransigence, making harsher sanctions more palatable. What would be needed, however, is a time limit on talks so the Iranians couldn’t stall their way to a nuclear capability.
The logic of engagement would have disappeared. A regime feeling under such domestic threat will not willingly give up on its insurance policy, a nuclear weapon. And the need to expose its true nature is not necessary. Engagement under those circumstances will only produce two negative results: give a regime on the ropes unjustified legitimacy and give it more time to move toward its nuclear goal.
On the other hand, if the demonstrations force the clerics to make significant concessions, the momentum towards fundamental change in Iran should not be lost. Included in that change would have to be a reduction in the control of the mullahs, a level of individual freedom in the country – particularly for women, who are at the forefront of the opposition – and a move to restore Iran to a role as a normal international player. The U.S. approach in such circumstances should be to encourage those trends through carrots and sticks, depending on how far and how fast change emerges.
Specifically, in the international arena, the United States, Europe, and the Arab states will be in a much stronger position to welcome Iran back into the community of nations if Iran halts its nuclear arms program and stops being the major supporter of Islamic terrorism in the region. If, however, change is put down by the clerics, tougher steps against the regime should have greater support.
One simple truth has been exposed: Iran’s problems are not caused by the United States. Everyone in Iran now knows this no matter the propaganda. That truth cannot be put back in the bottle. It changes everything.