When talking about Iran, U.S. political labels merely confuse Americans. Rouhani will not act moderate because he “is” moderate but because and only because the U.S. offers Iran a “moderate” deal so couched as to be of clear benefit to Iran.
Forget labels: the boxes are only in your head. Ahmadinejad, “known” by all right wingers in Israel and by all Neo-Cons in the U.S. to be a “radical,” in fact conducted a cautious foreign policy (underneath his tough words), avoiding military clashes with Israel and the U.S. despite extreme threats from those two nuclear powers to Iranian national security. The terror tactics (assassination of scientists), the nuclear threats, the belligerent deployment of attack carrier groups close to an adversary’s coastline, the decade-long economic war were the radical tactics of Netanyahu, Bush, Cheney, and Obama, none of whom is normally described in the U.S. media as a “radical.” And now everyone is labeling the new Iranian president “moderate.”
If one is interested in the use of language and the sources of group think that may blind a culture to reality, then a discussion of labels in politics is certainly useful, but if one is concerned with U.S.-Iranian relations, labels are a distraction. Ignore them. If Washington wants a radical in control in Iran, then the policy Washington has implemented for the last 15 years is exactly the right policy: thinly veiled nuclear threats, looking the other way while an ally conducts a terror campaign murdering scientists, the construction of a chain of offensive military bases along the borders of an adversary, and demands that the adversary bow down before a discriminatory nuclear regime (Iran, signatory to the NPT, is to be denied the right to conduct legal research while nuclear rogue Israel, not a signatory, is to be rewarded with a blank check) are precisely the way to ensure that any leader of Iran will be forced to adopt a hostile stance and to search for radical national security solutions. The other alternative–bowing to U.S. demands, accepting Israeli regional nuclear monopoly, making Iran once again a U.S. client state, and relinquishing the right to its own independent foreign policy–would simply result in such a leader’s arrest and execution for treason.
It is a fool’s errand to attempt to determine the degree to which President-Elect Rouhani, deep in the recesses of his mind, truly fits in what Americans take to be the “moderate” box. The idea is laughable. His culture, religion, and life experiences are not such that fit neatly into the curiously defined U.S. boxes: moderate? liberal? conservative? radical? Sorry, the correct answer is: none of the above…it depends. Only a few years ago, both Iran and the U.S. had presidents widely reputed to believe that they “spoke to God.” Good or bad, true or false, where does such a person fit in the common U.S. “liberal to conservative” political continuum? How does one label a president who conducts a near-global campaign of drone attacks? How does one label a president who launches a war of aggression on false pretenses…or who walks away from a battle against a terrorist leader in order to do so? How does one label the leader of a small ally who builds a personal political career by trying to talk his protector into starting a war? Whatever one thinks of such behavior, assigning it one of the standard labels is hard to justify: is such behavior “moderate,” “liberal,” “conservative?”
If Washington wants to deal effectively with Rouhani, to persuade Rouhani and the rest of the Iranian leadership to behave in accordance with U.S. goals, then it is up to Washington to create conditions that will make such behavior attractive. If Washington wants Tehran to relinquish certain military options, then Washington must logically offer appropriate national security guarantees in return. Some discussion of regional nuclear umbrellas based on regional nuclear transparency would be in order. Even if Washington offers immediately and completely to cancel its economic war against Iran, that in no way constitutes a “concession” to which any patriotic Iranian leader should be expected to respond with a concession in the national security arena: there is no balance. Demanding that Iran either submit to economic warfare or accept military dependence is a choice guaranteed to produce Iranian efforts to achieve a breakthrough – perhaps by building the bomb or some other weapon of mass destruction, perhaps by building an international coalition to oppose superpower domination of the world, perhaps by fomenting regional instability. If Washington desires progress, it must show that a logical way exists for Iranian politicians to move in that direction.
After all, Iran has not done too badly strutting the regional stage as the leading rejectionist of U.S. domination. Iran’s nemesis Saddam has been removed. Iran’s domestic political system has survived, indeed consolidated and somewhat regenerated itself. Iran has demonstrated that its appeal as a trade partner to large regional states–Turkey, Pakistan, India–makes its isolation by the U.S.-Israeli axis an illusion. In contrast, Washington is in the process of retreating from the Mideast – not completely, of course; pre-WWII isolation is not in the cards. But Washington has demonstrably failed to achieve its goals in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or Palestine by emphasizing force as the solution. In as much as Washington has yet to come up with an effective diplomatic approach, it is now faced with the unavoidable need to implement a partial retreat from the region. In the context of the resultant decline in its regional influence, the U.S. needs Iran at least as much as Iran needs the U.S. A genuine opportunity for mutual benefit now exists. But bilateral cooperation will not just happen; creative leadership will be required to bridge the canyon of distrust. If Washington hopes to entice the new Iranian president onto a new path, then Washington will have to stop playing the regional bully and come up with a logical and creative foreign policy stance.