In next June’s presidential election in Iran, I am rooting for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Count me in. I’ll register voters. I’ll volunteer. I’ll join a trip to visit grandmothers in a battleground province. Whatever they ask, I will do to assure that the holocaust-denying, Security Council-defying president keeps the true face of the Islamic revolution front and center.
The alternative - an accommodating cleric in the mold of former president Mohammad Khatami - scares me even as it delights many common-ground seekers, such as former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan. Mr. Annan visited Mr. Khatami in Tehran earlier this month along with erstwhile European leaders like Ireland’s Mary Robinson, Italy’s Romano Prodi, Norway’s Kjell Magne Bondevik, and Portugal’s Jorge Sampaio. They came to pay respect to Mr. Khatami and to urge this failed Tehran politician, often described as “moderate,” to run again for the presidency.
As Senator Obama observed recently, the president is not a top decision maker in Tehran’s clerical hierarchy. The hapless Mr. Khatami once likened his presidential powers to those held by the clerk who delivers tea to government officials. Nevertheless, during his seven years in office, Mr. Khatami became the West’s favorite Iranian statesman. Diplomats were especially enamored of a public relations campaign he created, Dialog Among Civilizations. The United Nations loved it so much, in fact, that it declared 2001 the “year of dialog among civilizations.”
I remember one breakfast event launching that yearlong Dialog. The guest of honor was an Iranian U.N. ambassador who was all smiles until he realized an Israeli diplomat was also invited to attend the meeting. When the Israeli man arrived, a bit late, the Iranian diplomat immediately left the room, ignoring his offer for a handshake. Even during that campaign Iranian officials were barred, as they are now, from dialoging with representatives of the Jewish civilization.
Although such slights exposed the limits to Tehran’s professed openness, Mr. Annan proceeded to create a new, well-funded bureaucracy around Mr. Khatami’s concept, which survived long after the Tehran dialog offices were shut down. Known currently as Alliance of Civilizations, the U.N. bureaucracy is now mostly financed by Spain and Turkey. And it is run, incidentally, by Mr. Annan’s former chief of staff, Iqbal Riza of Pakistan, who gained oil-for-food infamy by shredding reams of documents related to Paul Volcker’s investigation of that U.N. scandal.
With dialog, an Iranian “moderation” brand was born and Mr. Khatami was marketed as a man the West can negotiate with. But as Mr. Khatami smoothed diplomatic feathers, the top mullahs clandestinely moved on to obtain fissile materials and nuclear know-how. While the strategic decision to become a nuclear power was conceived by Ayatollah Khomeini in the mid-1980s, some of Iran’s most significant strides toward achieving that goal were made in the early 2000s, when Mr. Khatami was president. But only when Mr. Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency in August 2005 did the world start paying attention in earnest. Even Turtle Bay denizens can see that a nuclear power publicly boasting genocidal intentions is a menace. They may miss the danger signs if a government declares, no matter how implausibly, that all it wants to do is dialog.
Which brings us back to next year’s presidential election.
“We have so far paid a heavy price for the remarks by the president, and gained absolutely nothing in return,” the latest self-described moderate politician to enter Iran’s presidential race, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, told Tehran reporters recently. Mr. Kharoubi did not denounce holocaust denial or calls to wipe Israel off the map, but he said that declaring such sentiments openly may harm the cause of the oppressed Palestinian people.
This is the kind of “moderation” likely to appeal to Europeans and some Americans. If Mr. Khatami or someone like Mr. Karroubi wins the election, the pressure on the West - including, most significantly on the new American president - will increase to quickly revert to fruitless dealings with Tehran, launching a dialog on matters unrelated to the dangers presented by its regime.
The West will find it much easier to forgo such dead-end dialog - and apply tough diplomatic pressure or even more muscular solutions instead - if the intentions of Khomeini’s heirs remain explicit. With reports about poor health, Mr. Ahmadinejad may not be the next president, but an heir with equal zeal may hasten an internal rebellion in Iran, a country where revolutions occur every few decades. Iran will only be worthy of real dialog when it shakes off its last revolution. Until then, the Islamic Republic’s vile tenets should be in full display, rather than disguised by phony moderation.
Benny Avni is a U.N.-based journalist.