More than a million Iranians recently took to the streets to decide who should run their country. In America and Israel, however, some security officials and experts prejudged that struggle, preferring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to remain as president even before the votes were cast in the Iranian election.
Those who supported the re-election of the president, such as Meir Dagan, the head of Israel’s Mossad, or the American analyst Daniel Pipes, are not apologists for the Islamic Republic. Rather, they are staunch opponents of the mullahs’ regime who found themselves comforted by an Ahmadinejad administration for supposedly hardheaded, nonemotional, pragmatic reasons.
According to their line of thought, if you are serious about preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons state, want to end Iranian sponsorship of terrorism and want to stop Iran from throwing its weight around in the Middle East, then Mr. Ahmadinejad is your man. Mr. Ahmadinejad supposedly does our work for us, isolating the Iranian regime and exposing the dangerous ambitions that Iran’s “reformers” were so adept at hiding. Better for Iran to be run by a man who is openly hostile to the West than by a smiling deceiver — as his failed challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi might have been or as his predecessor Mohammad Khatami was.
Unfortunately, this clever twist on the Iranian election is gratuitously cruel toward Iranians and makes little sense. Those feeling satisfied at Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election might want to reconsider for three reasons: basic strategy, the history of Western engagement with Iran and recent Iranian electoral dynamics. While the crisis that has followed Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election, which none predicted, is to the advantage of the United States and its allies, it does not guarantee the success of their policies.
First, from a strategic perspective, the lesson of recent years is to plan for failure and not for success. The United States has failed to stop Pakistan, India and North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons. Israel has had more success with Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007), but only because it was willing to use force. By contrast, the Iranian regime has not been so foolish as to concentrate its illicit nuclear program in one location. This makes a military strike more complex and unlikely.
The odds that we will stop Iran from “going nuclear” are therefore not promising. As those “rooting for Ahmadinejad” have long stated, we should take Mr. Ahmadinejad’s threats seriously. When Mr. Ahmadinejad speaks of wiping Israel off the map, he is using the language of murder, not of metaphor. Moreover, the same voices have told us that President Obama’s offer to engage the Iranian regime unconditionally sends a message of weakness that guarantees the failure of any diplomatic overtures.
To be sure, Mr. Mousavi would not have been a substantial improvement. He has no background as a reformer. Nor is he a lover of Zion. Nor is he a democrat. Mr. Mousavi oversaw a brutal war economy in the 1980s when mass human rights violations were the norm. However, with Iran likely to acquire nuclear weapons sooner or later, it makes sense for us to want the most rational Iranian fingers on that most dangerous button, not the ones that make for bad press.
Second, the experience of the recent Bush administration demonstrates that Mr. Ahmadinejad is not a diplomatic convenor who can unite the world against a nuclear Iran. What drew international attention to Iran’s nuclear program was the discovery in late 2002 of key facilities at Natanz and Arak — when supposedly moderate Mohammad Khatami was president. The realization that Iran was far closer to acquiring nuclear weapons than previously known created diplomatic alarm, not the identity nor the politics of its president.
This sense of urgency did not intensify when Mr. Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005. Nor did Iran become more isolated after he began his campaign of Holocaust denial in December 2005. Indeed, the result was more, not less, diplomatic engagement. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced on May 31, 2006, that if Iran suspended uranium enrichment, the United States would participate in the ongoing talks between Iran and the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany). The Islamic regime’s response to this offer was clear — on July 12, 2006, Iran’s proxy Hezbollah attacked Israel.
Two years of Iranian nuclear defiance, Holocaust denial, and involvement in the deaths of American and British soldiers in Iraq later, President George W. Bush offered Mr. Ahmadinejad unconditional engagement. Mr. Bush dropped the condition that Iran suspend uranium enrichment before meeting with U.S. diplomats. Instead, he sent Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, No. 3 in the State Department, to join British, French, German, Chinese, Russian and EU representatives on July 19, 2008, at a meeting with the Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s defiance gained him the highest-level U.S.-Iranian encounter in more than 20 years. Mr. Jalili rose to the occasion — he ignored Mr. Burns.
Indeed, so strong has Mr. Ahmadinejad’s record been at not rallying the world against him that he boasted of defying Mr. Bush in his election debate with Mr. Mousavi on June 3.
As for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s impressive economic mismanagement, another supposed benefit of his re-election, it has not for one moment constrained Iran’s regional or nuclear ambitions.
Third, the conduct of Iran’s presidential election also undermines the notion of a silver lining in the Ahmadinejad cloud. Mr. Mousavi ran a strong campaign arguing that Mr. Ahmadinejad was driving Iran off a cliff, accusing him of “superstition and adventurism” as well as “irrational management.” Mr. Mousavi’s direction is precisely the one that we want Iran to follow — toward caution and away from recklessness, toward restraint and away from adventurism.
Had Mr. Mousavi prevailed, this would not have resolved any outstanding issues with Iran. Yet it is inconceivable that the victory of a genocide-minded, anti-Semitic religious fanatic is better.
Andrew Apostolou is a senior program manager at Freedom House.