Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, is just the latest brutal, dangerous leader inexplicably given the benefit of the doubt by so many liberal defenders of human rights, though no real doubt of his nature exists. Why?
The Liberal Impulse, Iran, and The Great Moderate Hope
It’s mystifying. It’s amusing. But mostly, it’s just dangerous. Liberals and those on the left who pride themselves on their defense of human rights have a curious blind spot when it comes to assessing new faces of bad regimes. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, is just the latest brutal, dangerous leader inexplicably given the benefit of the doubt by so many, though no real doubt of his nature exists.
Left-wing Israeli politicians have been particularly susceptible. Though PM Netanyahu soberly assessed Rohani’s election as not materially changing the Khamenei-run regime, Zehava Gal On, leader of the Meretz party,pushed back, noting that “the Iranian people and the West are welcoming the moderate new president,” but “Netanyahu will not let reality get in the way of his plans to attack Iran.” Labor’s Eitan Cabel added, “It’s wrong to live in a world of fear. The PM needs to stop scaring us.” And Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz declared, “It will take months to judge where Rohani is going.”
Why? Everyone already knows that 686 candidates registered to run for Iranian president, but Ayatollah Khamenei’s council deemed just 8 — the purest 1.1% — ideologically kosher enough to stand for election. Rohani’s long public record is of involvement with Ayatollah Khomeni and his Islamist revolution, with Iran’s human rights abuses, and with heading its decidedly un-moderate nuclear negotiations. Immediately upon election, he committed 4,000 more troops to Syria and ruled out any halt in Iran’s uranium enrichment. Just how does he warrant the “moderate” label absent some hallucinogenic mix of disinformation and wishful thinking?
While I’m sure the phenomenon of recasting bad actors as “moderates” goes back farther (Stalin, perhaps?), the first similar example I recall was at the ascent of Yuri Andropov to lead the Soviet Union. As Soviet ambassador to Hungary in 1956, he oversaw the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. He was also longtime head of the KGB, committed to exterminating the dissident movement, crushing 1968’s Prague Spring, and persecuting Jewish “refuseniks.”
As he took power in 1982, a frigid year in the Cold War, the Western press lost its collective sanity. Major media outlets outdid each other with amazing stories of moderate Andropov speaking English fluently, relaxing with American novels, and tango dancing. He was a bibliophile with a taste for modern art, jazz, anti-regime jokes, Sinatra, and fashionable Western suits. He even supposedly enjoyed courtesy visits with dissidents.
Obvious questions went unasked: how could such a moderate, charming lover of all things Western have led the KGB, the most evil part of the Evil Empire? How could the Politburo’s deputy evil emperors have selected someone so unlike themselves as leader? How could someone so moderate slam shut the emigration door on the fingers of persecuted Jews? Apparently, the correct lesson was that there was now little need to continue with all that Cold War unpleasantness.
In the Obama administration, CIA Director John Brennan seeks out “moderate elements” in terrorist Hezb’allah, which he calls “a very interesting organization.” Hillary Clinton continued to defend Syria’s Bashar Assad as a “reformer” even as his troops massacred Syrian civilians, while John Kerry called Assad his “dear friend” who wanted “to engage with the West.”
And Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the Muslim Brotherhood, then about to take over Egypt, a “largely secular,” non-violent organization devoted to pursuing the social and political betterment of Egypt. Sort of like the League of Women Voters, one imagines.
What is it in the psyche of the liberal/left that sees only silver linings but is dismissive of approaching stormclouds? That is so eager to conjure up comforting stories in the face of uncomfortable realities?
I suspect that two primary factors are in play. First, there is the left’s extreme aversion to confrontation that might involve the U.S. or Israeli military. This is not an unhealthy instinct — up to a point: sometimes threats are so dangerous and evil that military action (and/or credible military threat) is necessary, and even good. Does Iranian nuclear weapons capability not qualify? As the red lines approach, pretending the threat is now somehow diminished is both childish and dangerous.
Second, the overwhelmingly secular left lacks comprehension of the intractable power of religiously motivated enmity. When the devout are committed to carrying out God’s will (e.g., destruction of the “Great Satan”), they are not easily dissuaded, even by severe economic sanctions. Rohani is a Khamenei-endorsed cleric, a messianist, and the president of an Islamist-supremacist regime. To the secular, his religious motivations may seem incidental — Rohani’s avuncular smile and fluent English may make him appear moderate, but his religious commitment to harm Israel and the West is no such thing.
Either way, self-delusion is no way to confront evolving threats.