During the recent upheavals across the Greater Middle East, the various iterations of the neoconservative line—the optimistic pro-democracy, the paranoid Islamophobic, or the brazen combination of both—have all tended to share a single major fallacy: that the opposition movement in Iran, the so-called Green movement, is a movement that seeks the same goals as neoconservatives and their allies. This central premise presumes a number of unsupportable notions, including that the Green movement seeks to abolish the Islamic Republic, opposes the Iranian nuclear program, and wants to overhaul Iranian foreign policy.
Last November, Ali Gharib wrote on the Foreign Policy blog about the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Reuel Marc Gerecht brief on the Green movement, which has included simultaneous calls for U.S. support for the movement and military action against Iran. Gharib noted that Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, a Green spokesperson quoted at great length by Gerecht, has not only been outspoken in her opposition to military action against Iran but also gave high praise to the Iran policy of the Obama administration.
It would be challenging to catalog all the commentaries on Mideast social unrest in which hardline “pro-Israel” ideologues repeated some variation of the refrains: “what about Iran?” or “what about Obama’s silence on Iran?” But the most extraordinary instance has to be the good tidings with which the Commentary blog greeted the news that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard had pledged not to fire on opposition protesters, at the same time that members of the Iranian parliament were demanding the execution of opposition leaders. This is the very same Revolutionary Guard that Republicans on Capitol Hill insisted–just a few years ago–that the State Department add to their List of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Consider the implications: It is clear from the events that have transpired in Iran since the revolutionary ferment spread beyond Egypt that there is a deep and likely irreconcilable factional divide in the governing class of the Islamic Republic. If the Revolutionary Guard is on the side of the opposition—which would amount to a nascent civil war—this would represent potential proof that the Green movement is at least as militantly nationalist as Iran’s current rulers and would possibly support a return to the Islamic Revolution’s first principles.
Yet the pro-Israel right has continued unabated in its wild-eyed claims about the Green movement as well as its insistence that Obama should have rushed to embrace it. A striking example of this came on February 18, when Sean Hannity devoted an entire hour-long program to promoting the scaremongering and warmongering film Iranium—produced by the Likud-aligned Clarion Fund—which seamlessly blends a lament for the Iranian opposition with paranoia about the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, reliable Iran hawks like Michael Rubin and David Frum are sounding the alarm about an imminent Iranian triumph through the uprising in Bahrain. Frum goes so far as to declare, “Every regional decision [by the United States] has to be measured against this test: Is this moving us closer to, or further from, a positive change in the Iranian political system?”
This incredible declaration—that every U.S. decision regarding the Mideast upheaval must be viewed through the prism of its effect on the plainly unrealistic prospect of an American-engineered regime change in Iran—is among the most frank admissions to date of the neocons’ pathological obsession with Iran. This obsession is an extension of the Israeli focus on Iran as a scapegoat for all of its problems—with the Palestinians, with the international community, and with American Jewry. The most important thing to realize about this obsession is that it cannot be understood or explained in rational terms.
For Israelis, the phenomenon is simple enough. Few today remember that during the Cold War there was a similar refrain about the Soviet Union—namely that the Arab states’ real fear was Moscow and thus they were unconcerned with the Palestinian problem. To the extent that the Wikileaks cables have revealed the extreme nervousness of Arab rulers about Iran, their anxiety has been spurred by concerns for their own survival rather than a reflection of popular sentiment in the Arab world. In short, to whatever degree Iran may stand to profit from the upheavals in the Arab world, the existence of a regime that expresses sympathy for the aspirations of the Arab peoples against their governments is ultimately irrelevant to those peoples finally giving those regimes their comeuppance.
For the American right, it is not simply a matter of scapegoating. It is no accident David Frum chose to make his bald declaration of his Iran obsession in his comments on the upheaval in Bahrain. Any new regime in the country would surely ask the U.S. Fifth Fleet to withdraw–and it is hard to see how the United States could refuse. Yet, mainstream media accounts of the upheaval describe Bahrain as “the headquarters of any future conflict with Iran,” as if that were still realistically in the cards even before the revolutionary wave reached the Persian Gulf.
Newtonian physics suffices to explain why Iran is poised to fill the vacuum created by an increasingly and inevitably receding U.S. presence in the region. It is also true this has made Iran a natural candidate for American superpower anxiety. Iran is the civilization that invented both chess and backgammon—they know how to play the long game and they have been doing it masterfully for some time. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be crazy, but he is also crazy like a fox. His dalliances with holocaust denial and other affronts to liberal piety would appear to demonstrate that he knows how to play the West, and especially the neocons, like a violin.
Seen in this light, the neoconservative tendency to reject reason and embrace a fabulous version of the Green movement seems a mere byproduct of Iran’s success at making itself into a bête noire of its adversaries in Israel and the West—which may even be a strategic goal of the Islamic Republic. And since much of the U.S. political elite shares this same malady, it allows the Iran opposition fiction to go unchallenged.
There may yet be massive upheavals in Iran like those that have engulfed much of the Middle East and North Africa. It is even possible, although unlikely, that such an upheaval could challenge the foundations of the Islamic Republic in a way the leaders of the Green movement never intended. But from what we know about the situation in Iran, the various upheavals in its neighborhood could provide the perfect opportunity for the regime to make the pragmatic changes called for by the Green movement. Indeed, the opposition no doubt feels this is what is necessary for Iran to take its rightful vanguard role in the revolutionary wave.
In any event, what is clear is that the pathological obsession of both U.S. neoconservatives and their Israeli counterparts is turning them into bizarre cheerleaders for a movement fundamentally opposed to them.