Benjamin Netanyahu’s Told-You-So Moment

By Sohrab Ahmari

Wall Street Journal

April 6, 2017


Benjamin 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.

His or theirs?

The 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.

His 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.

Such 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.

The 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.

The Israeli could be opportunistic, given to hyperbole and not a little vulgar in pressing his case. He was also right.

It’s 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.

Start 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.”

Well, 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.

Times 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.”

As 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 in Syria.

Mr. 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.

Then 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.”

Those Green leaders are still under house arrest.

“Mr. 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 a 2014 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.

Israel 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.

And they’ll cry for Syria.