Good news out of Iran: maybe this country is not the Great Satan, after all

Jeffrey Goldberg and I go way back — in fact, we go back to the third post ever published on this blog.

OK, so the artist formerly known as Goldblog has no idea who I am, or that we go way back, but if he did, he’d know this: when you see his name on Paper Treiger, it’s usually a safe bet that I disagree with whatever it is he had to say.

Not this time; for once, we actually agree on something.

On Friday, I cynically predicted that the Iranian election would be won by whoever earned the most votes — on Ayatollah Khamenei’s ballot. And today, while the rest of the civilized world celebrated the victory of certified moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani, Jeffrey remained less-than-impressed:

Essentially this is a fake election and a fake democracy.

He doesn’t go so far as to accuse Khamenei of rigging the election — maybe he is trying to avoid the inevitable fatwa for as long as he can — but Goldberg does point out that the Ayatollah holds the real power:

Let’s not kid ourselves about what we’re dealing with here. These are hand picked candidates by the supreme leader who are running for president. With that said this guy is a smoother operator, he does seem more moderate in his economic approach, he does seem less confrontational. And remember, the leader of Iran is the supreme leader, I mean they call him supreme leader for a reason right? He’s the supreme leader.  He sets national security policy.  He sets foreign policy.  He sets nuclear policy.  So let’s not forget where the power lies in that country.

In other words, nothing’s really changed but the optics. It’s not often that I agree with Commentary, but I think Jonathan Tobin’s commentary for that magazine’s blog is not that far off base:

Hassan Rowhani is the new president of Iran, but though the vote is seen as a setback for Khamenei, the supreme leader is actually the big winner. Having seen how Ahmadinejad’s antics and open expression of hatred made it easier to sell Western governments on the necessity of taking the Iranian threat seriously, Khamenei is right to think Rowhani’s victory will be interpreted by many in the Western foreign policy establishment as a chance to see if Iran is taking a step back from the nuclear precipice.

But as with past “moderates” who won the presidency, Rowhani may be the new face of the regime but it won’t change a thing about who runs Iran, its support for Bashar Assad and Hezbollah terrorism, or its drive for nuclear weapons. The alleged moderate—whose views on those issues don’t deviate a whit from those of Khamenei anyway—won’t have any influence on those matters.

And, indeed, the day’s news out of Iran is that the country intends to send 4,000 members of its vaunted Revolutionary Guard to Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad. Granted, the decision was made last week — before the election — but the decision to commit armed forces to a bloody conflict is not the move one would expect of a country experiencing any sort of real transition.

But if you can’t take the election of the most moderate eligible candidate as a sign of an impending breakthrough in relations, might it be possible to discern one elsewhere? Excellent question — coincidentally, it is the one I intend this post to answer.

Back on Friday, before the election results became known, Mr. Khamenei was alerted to the fact that there would be a certain level of international skepticism regarding the outcome of the election:

“I heard recently that someone in America’s National Security Council said that we don’t accept Iran’s elections,” Khamenei said, an apparent reference to a comment by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. Kerry said last month that he did not expect the elections to “change the fundamental calculus” of Iran’s nuclear policies, which he said are controlled by Khamenei, and not the president.

“To hell with those who don’t accept it,” said Khamenei.

The concept of Hell, as you are doubtless aware, can vary significantly from religion to religion, but I’d venture that it’s relatively uncontroversial to suggest that — should one find himself in Hell — he is likely to come across a winged, horned devil named Satan.

“Great Satan,” incidentally, is a term first used to refer to the United States by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in a 1979 speech. As recently* as February, his successor — the present Ayatollah — used it in a similar context.

*I’m sure I could find other, and perhaps more recent examples if I looked harder, but that would be a waste of my time and yours.

But now, this. Put slightly differently, Khamenei on Friday damned the U.S. Secretary of State to hell — where one might suppose he was already headed, seeing as to how he is presumably an integral cog in the machinery of the Great Satan. But if Kerry to hell is something we already knew about, what exactly was Khamenei trying to tell us on Friday?

Perhaps the flipside of his condemnation of just this single individual is that the Ayatollah has taken a softened stance vis a vis the rest of the United States. That Kerry specifically is going to hell implies that — just maybe — other Americans are not. What’s bad news for Kerry is great news for the rest of us! Allah be praised. Khamenei may just have grown soft in his old age.

And that’s all I’ve got.

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