The election of Hassan Rowhani as president of Iran is good news for Americans, except for the neoconservative hawks who brought us the war in Iraq and have been especially eager for another military adventure in Iran.
In Iranian terms, Rowhani is a moderate. In the Iranian media, he is called the "diplomat sheikh" and the "sheikh of hope." In his initial news conference after the election, Rowhani said he would work to build trust between Iran and the United States, Britain and other Western powers with the goal of lifting the international sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.
Those sanctions exist, of course, because, under Rowhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran has been surreptitiously moving toward building nuclear weapons. For the neocons, Ahmadinejad was a perfect foil. His histrionics and rabid anti-Israel rhetoric showed that he was a man not to be trusted with nukes and a man with whom sanctions and diplomacy would have little influence. In the neocon analysis, military action was the only viable option.
Neoconservative think tanks, such as Project for the New American Century, and thinkers, such as Bill Kristol, have been agitating for at least a preemptive air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. They will now argue that not much has really changed because the Iranian president's powers are sharply limited by the hard-core Islamist mullahs who are the ultimate power in Teheran.
They are right about who is ultimately in charge, but even the mullahs must take public opinion into account. Rowhani won an outright majority against five conservative candidates, and that gives him significant leverage. There is a war for the soul of Iran going on and the dark side lost this one particularly significant battle.
The U.S. needs to give Rowhani and the more progressive side of the Iranian populace a chance to reform their system and tame the radicals. The last thing Rowhani needs is an American military intrusion that would cause Iranians to rally around the old guard. Instead, the Obama administration needs to mount an all-out diplomatic offensive to see if this small bit of good news can lead to something even better.