Netanyahu’s Told-You-So Moment
April 6, 2017
Netanyahu will never be popular in America’s major newsrooms. Or among most of
the think-tankers who set the tone and parameters of foreign-policy debate. His
name is a curse on college campuses. So it’s worth asking whose vision of the
Middle East has held up better under the press of recent events.
question comes to mind as Western governments confront this week’s chemical
atrocity in Syria, and as footage of children’s bodies convulsing in agony
once more unsettles the world’s conscience. Even President Trump, who
generally lacks a moral language, was moved, though whether he will act remains
to be seen.
predecessor had a rich moral vocabulary and a coterie of award-winning
moralizers like Samantha Power on staff. But President Obama refused to act when
Bashar Assad crossed his chemical red line. He wanted to extricate Washington
from the region, and he saw a nuclear deal with Mr. Assad’s Iranian patrons as
the exit ramp.
a deal came within grasp when Hassan Rouhani launched his presidential campaign
in Iran four years ago this month. The smiling, self-proclaimed “moderate”
was the Iranian interlocutor the Obamaians had been waiting for. Mr. Netanyahu
posed the main obstacle.
Israeli prime minister warned that Mr. Rouhani didn’t have the power to
moderate the regime even if he had the will. He reminded the world of Mr.
Rouhani’s role in Iran’s repressive apparatus and his history of
anti-American rhetoric. He insisted that Iranian regional aggression wouldn’t
relent if sanctions were removed. Iran, he predicted, would pocket the financial
concessions, then press ahead in Syria and elsewhere.
Israeli could be opportunistic, given to hyperbole and not a little vulgar in
pressing his case. He was also right.
instructive now to compare his account of the regime with the baseless euphoria
in the Western media that greeted Mr. Rouhani’s election in June 2013 and
marked coverage of the nuclear deal over the next four years.
with Iran’s role in Syria. Writing in September 2013, the New
York Times editorial
board suggested that Iran’s intentions “could be tested by inviting its
new government to join the United States and Russia in carrying out the recent
agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons. It seems like a natural
convergence: Iranians know well the scourge of poison gas.”
apparently they didn’t know the scourge well enough to restrain their chief
Arab client from systematically gassing his own people, even after the
Russian-brokered chemical deal.
columnist Roger Cohen wrote in
March 2015 that Iran’s regional aggression would be “attenuated” by
“greater economic contact with the world and the gradual emergence of a young
generation of Iranians drawn to the West.” A few months later, he
chided Mr. Netanyahu for passing up the chance to engage “one of the most
highly educated societies in the Middle East.”
if the regime and Iran’s repressed people are one and the same. And as if
young Iranians’ appetite for Slavoj Zizek books and indie rock could give the
Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force second thoughts about their operations
Cohen also argued that the deal “makes the Middle East less dangerous by
forestalling proliferation.” Iran’s Sunni rivals missed that memo, and
they’ve been on an arms-shopping spree ever since. Rare is the Arab diplomat
these days who doesn’t unburden himself of his fear of the deal and loathing
of the ex-president who signed it. In off-the-recording briefings, that is.
there’s democratization. It was in the domestic sphere that Mr. Rouhani’s
apologists saw the greatest promise. Wrote
Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Center in August 2013: “Rouhani has
acknowledged and identified himself” with Iran’s reform movement. “He has
talked of releasing political prisoners; and if this turns out to include the
leaders of the Green Movement, under house arrest for over four years, this may
open the door to a reconciliation.”
Green leaders are still under house arrest.
Rouhani’s rise is in reality the consequence of a critical cultural and
demographic shift in Iran away from theocracy and confrontation,” wrote
Stanford’s Abbas Milani and Israel Waismel-Manor of the University of Haifa in
Times op-ed. The authors went on to suggest that Israel and Iran were
trading places, with the Jewish state under Mr. Netanyahu becoming a closed
society even as the Islamic Republic was opening up.
still enjoys a multiparty democracy and a vibrant, free press. Iran is still a
bloody dictatorship that is underwriting the butchery in Syria. But as the
Islamic Republic gears up for its next potemkin presidential “election” in
May, prepare for the Western media to reinforce the impression that Iranians
have real choices at the ballot box, between moderates and hard-liners. Our
hard-liners like Mr. Netanyahu, they’ll say, are just as bad as theirs.
they’ll cry for Syria.