Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an easy fellow to detest. Holocaust-denier, Jew-hater, fundamentalist suppressor of his own people, and, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei notwithstanding, an election cheat. He is the perfect foil for the neo-conservatives who were intent just a decade ago on ushering in a new "American Century" of aggressive global dominance under the rubric of "total war" and "creative destruction," starting, what a surprise! in the oil-rich Middle East.
Among neo-conservatives, views about Iran are unified in the sense that they all think the Democrats, that is, the party, Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama, are wrong, too cautious in their overt and covert opposition to the mullahs' regime and too eager to engage it in direct diplomacy. Even George Bush and Dick Cheney, in their view, didn't go far enough.
But, with the 56th anniversary of the CIA coup in Iran just two months away, there are splits in the ranks.
A typical neo-con point of view expressed just a few weeks before the election held that another reformer (even a reformer with as grimly a bloody past as Mir-Hossein Mousavi) would make it harder to rouse interest in the United States for more of the kind of interference in Iran's affairs that some expert observers believe cost the Iranian soft-liners the election of 2005.
Daniel Pipes was one who sees things that way. At a conference the first week of June, he said: "I’m sometimes asked who I would vote for if I were enfranchised in this election, and I think that, with due hesitance, I would vote for Ahmadinejad [because I would] prefer to have an enemy who’s forthright and obvious, who wakes people up with his outlandish statements."
On Tuesday, Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, told the Knesset (parliament) that "[I]f the reformist candidate Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived in the international arena as a moderate element."
But Michael Ledeen - the ultra-rightist believer in "total war" who for more than 10 years has been arguing for the United States to pump financial and other support into Iranian groups opposed to the mullahs' regime that he always believed to be on the verge of collapse - says that Mousavi, who as prime minister presided over the executions of thousands of Iranians in the 1980s, is now much changed. He has been radicalized by what has happened in the run-up to the election and subsequently. "Does Mousavi even want to change the system? I think he does, and in any event, I think that's the wrong question," Ledeen wrote on Monday. "He is not a revolutionary leader, he is a leader who has been made into a revolutionary by a movement that grew up around him."
Formerly at the American Enterprise Institute and now at the right-wing Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Ledeen, also attacked fellow neo-conservatives Danielle Pletka and Ali Alfoneh for an Op-Ed in Monday's The New York Times that he called "embarrassingly silly" for arguing that the symbolic protests against the election results had already been crushed.
Given that Ledeen's shady past includes having, to put it mildly, vouched for the expatriate Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar of Iran-contra notoriety, cautious people might take his proposals for who is credible in Iran and what U.S. policy-makers should do there with a salt shaker and a barf bag in hand.
In his column today at the FDD, Ledeen asks what the U.S. can do to help the new revolution in Iran: "Call, courage and clarity from our leaders. Above all, from Obama and Hillary. Constant denunciation of the oppression and slaughter of innocent people in Iran, constant appeals to the 'universal values' for which we all stand." This imprecation against slaughter from someone who argued for pre-emptive military action against Iraq, Syria and Iran.
As it offers an opportunity to pound on Barack Obama, his latest point of view seems to be one many other neo-cons have taken up with a vengeance.
Writing in the Washington Post on Wednesday, Robert Kagan said Obama is "objectively on the side of the government's efforts to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, not in league with the opposition's efforts to prolong the crisis." Another neo-con, Charles Krauthammer, the fellow who thinks torture should only be allowed when a U.S. government official thinks it's a good idea, wrote today in the Post: "The Khamenei regime is deciding whether to do a Tiananmen. And what side is the Obama administration taking? None." Also in the Post today - detect a trend here? - Paul Wolfowitz, leading architect of the Iraq invasion and the Bush Doctrine, wrote: "Now is not the time for the president to dig in to a neutral posture. It is time to change course."
Those views are widely questioned. According to Patrick Disney of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a group that has been supportive of the protesters:
Of course, there are some who view this weekend's events as an opportunity for the US to support a particular Iranian faction loudly and clearly; Indiana Republican Mike Pence said that he hopes President Obama will throw his support behind Mousavi by the end of the day. But these people are playing with dynamite. At the moment, lectures on democracy and Jeffersonian diatribes against tyranny are the last thing the Iranian people need. At best, such grandstanding would give the hardliners in Iran a reason to paint the reformist camp as a stooge of the West; at worst, it could incite the crowds even more and risk blowing the top off an already tumultuous situation.
Michael Ledeen's views aside, the problem for both neo-conservatives and other right-wing hawks is that whatever else can be said about Mousavi:
[He] like all candidates in last week's presidential elections - is adamant that he would continue Iran's civilian nuclear program, although he has suggested that Iran would be willing to negotiate on the issue of nuclear weapons.
Barring a drastic reversal resulting in outright regime change - which few experts believe is likely to occur - the US would be likely to face a similar strategic calculus on the nuclear issue whether Mousavi or Ahmadinejad were president.
It is because of this that some neo-conservatives have suggested that an Ahmadinejad victory is preferable, since his confrontational stance makes it easier to rally popular support for harsher measures - such as sanctions or ultimately military force - against Tehran.
None of that is particularly helpful to progressives in forming their own views of the proper course to take either as citizens in solidarity with Iranian protesters or advisers to a Democratic president whose words two weeks ago in Cairo may well have encouraged Iranians sick of Ahmadinejad, in particular, and the mullahs, in general.
More than a half-century of imperial U.S. interference in Iran, coming on the heels of more than a half-century of interference by Russia and Britain, ought to be reason enough for caution. Like many U.S. allies in the Middle East, Iran is a rightist, misogynist and deeply corrupt authoritarian regime. However. recklessly translating into policy a natural sympathy for protesters being beaten and murdered in Iran runs the risk of playing into the hands of neo-conservatives and other war-hawks at home as well as the worst elements of the mullahs' regime itself. Yet doing little more than amplifying the dreadful information coming out of Iran is decidedly discomfiting.
[Added for clarity]: It's hard to sit on our hands even if that is the best thing. The left has a long history of solidarity with oppressed people (distorted as the USSR sometimes made that). Watching and not being able to do anything except keep the channels of communication as open as possible is frustrating. And what is nerve-wracking is thinking about the longer term. If the rightists win (again) in Iran, will that juice up support for the rightists' here in their long-standing efforts to get military action against Iran?