Can Iran, and Obama, Break the Cycle of Idiocy?

It’s often noted that the most hawkish elements in squabbling countries unwittingly enable and support each other. The stand-off between the United States and Iran illustrates this perfectly.

Tensions between the countries date back decades, of course, beginning with the U.S.-instigated overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh and his democratically elected government in 1953 and escalating with the Iranian siege of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. But it is only in the last few years that a direct military confrontation has emerged as real, maybe even imminent, prospect.

It’s against this backdrop that Iranians will head to the polls on Friday for the preliminary round of their quadrennial presidential election. If incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his three challengers each fail to secure 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will be held a week later, on June 19.

To most voters, the top issue is the paralyzed Iranian economy, not foreign policy. Nonetheless, their verdict could transform the U.S. debate over Iran overnight.

Since Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005, hawks in the West have had it easy. To anyone who’s questioned whether the Islamic Republic, with its undeveloped industrial base and limited military power, actually represents a grave threat to the security of America and its allies, they’ve simply been able to point to Ahmadinejad and his defiant, hysterical rhetoric against Israel and the U.S.

It all makes for the kind of emotionally charged argument that works best with an American public that hardly follows the nuances of Middle East history and politics (let alone its own): Here’s a man—the president of Iran!—who denies the Holocaust, speaks of eliminating Israel from the map, and wants to acquire nuclear weapons. Comparisons to Hitler are frequently invoked. In this sense, Ahmadinejad has been the hawks’ best friend—a pitch-perfect representation of everything they want Westerners to fear.

Never mind that the Iranian presidency doesn’t come with anything approaching the authority of the American presidency. In Iran, the real power resides with the reclusive Supreme Leader, who can castrate the president at his pleasure. (There is also the Guardian Council, which can invalidate laws passed by the democratically elected parliament.) So even if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, Ahmadinejad wouldn’t have his finger on the button.

And never mind that Ahmadinejad’s vile rhetoric can best be understood as a domestic political survival tactic. He was elected in 2005 on a platform of economic rejuvenation and has utterly failed to deliver. Inflation now stands at around 25 percent. Provoking the West has been a brilliant smokescreen: Every time an Israeli or American or European leader condemns him and threatens Iran with sanctions or air strikes, it rallies much of the Iranian public, especially his base in the rural parts of the country, around him. In fulminating against Ahmadinejad, you might say that Western hawks are simply returning the favor.

But the deal may be starting to fall apart. In George W. Bush and his neoconservative policy team, Ahmadinejad and his allies in Iran had the perfect partner. Recall that when Bush came to power in 2001, an outspoken reformer, Mohammed Khatami, was the president of Iran. Khatami sought improved relations with the West and actually cooperated with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. But Bush still declared Iran part of the “axis of evil” in January 2002, which dramatically weakened Khatami and his reformist allies in Iran—paving the way for Ahmadinejad’s emergence in 2005.

Now, though, Bush is out of the way, replaced by Barack Obama, who has called for diplomacy with Iran and resisted (more than most American politicians, at least) the Iran-as-the-new-Nazi Germany narrative. But for his diplomatic approach to work, Obama needs two things: political breathing room and an Iranian partner.

This, obviously, is where the Iranian election comes in. If Ahmadinejad is defeated, it will equip non-hawks for the first time with a resonant counter-argument to the hawks’ emotionalism. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s chief rival, Mir Hossein Moussavi (Iran’s prime minister from 1981 to 1989), is aligned with reformers (like Khatami) and has made clear his displeasure with Ahmadinejad’s verbal incitement of the West. With Moussavi as president, the hawks will be denied the easy propaganda they’ve come to rely on to market their strategy of confrontation.

Granted, Moussavi’s election won’t suddenly bring Iran and the U.S. together. Like Ahmadinejad, he also favors a nuclear program (for peaceful purposes, they contend), so that issue would still need to be resolved. But if Iranians rise up at the ballot box against Ahmadinejad, it will significantly alter Americans’ perceptions of the Islamic Republic and give Obama the political space he needs to pursue diplomacy.

Clearly, the White House recognizes the significance of this week’s vote. On Tuesday, Congress had been scheduled to take up the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act of 2009—legislation pushed aggressively by American hawks that would serve as perfect propaganda for Ahmadinejad in the closing days of his campaign. But the White House intervened and the vote was called off.

Right now, Ahmadinejad is expected to lead Friday’s voting. The question is whether he’ll break 50 percent. If he doesn’t, then the door will be wide open for Moussavi in the run-off, since the other two candidates are also running on anti-Ahmadinejad messages. Suddenly, the prospect of an Ahmadinejad defeat on June 19 will be very real. And the hawks—in both countries—will be very nervous. Can Iran, and Obama, Break the Cycle of Idiocy?