NEW YORK — In the weeks since moderate Iranians threw down the gauntlet to the conservative clerics who run their lives, Israel has watched the unfolding drama with trepidation.
Since the discovery of a serious Iranian nuclear program at Natanz in 2003, trepidation has laced Israeli views of Iran. Already an enemy by virtue of its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and terrorism against Jews generally, suddenly Iran loomed as a potential source of the ultimate nightmare — a nuclear attack.
But the discomfort caused by the the dramatic clashes between Iranian moderates and the regime is of a different nature. As long as the vacant stare of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Hilterian rants of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embodied "Iran," Israel could avoid thinking too seriously about what military types call "collateral damage." Many suspected Iranian nuclear facilities were located in busy suburbs, some beneath busy cities.
Now, however, Iran has donned a very different face — not just that of Neda, the young protester whose tragic death has been watched by millions on YouTube. The new face Iran has turned to the world is a composite. Yes, the mullah and Ahmadinnerjacket are still in there, but so are hundreds of thousands of people risking their skin to repudiate them.
This is not a minor issue for Israel, nor for American military planners who might have harbored hopes of reviving the idea of a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear sites. A former head of Israel's Mossad intelligence service, Meir Dagan, let slip the dilemma facing anti-Iranian hawks when he told journalists recently: "If the reformist candidate Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived internationally arena as a moderate element."
In effect, Dagan said, Ahmadinijad was Israel's choice because it would have been a lot easier to send a wave or two of F-15s to bomb Iran if the world knew that Iranians had, indeed, overwhelmingly reelected such a cretin.
Now, images of street protests vastly complicate that calculus. Imagine the revulsion if such air strikes, as they regularly do in Afghanistan, led to the unintended deaths of dozens or more of the very Iranians who are being cheered in the streets today?
Images have proved inconvenient to war planners ever since the first photographs of the Crimean War were published in London in the middle of the 19th century. Censors did their best to prevent the carnage of war from sapping public morale — something they're still doing, as the Bush administration's ban on showing the caskets of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq attests.
Aerial bombing destroyed the line that previously protected civilians from such carnage. The ability of images to raise public questions about war policy thus grew enormously. From Guernica to Nanking, Coventry to Dresden, to Hiroshima and the use of napalm in Vietnam, this has happened to varying degrees across many cultures. Sometimes, the impact is emotional but has no policy outlet. Other times, the world steps back, takes a breath, and seeks a way — often through negotiations — to prevent more of the same.
Are we there now with Iran? In some ways, this is a bit like 1988. Not 1989 — there's no revolution, the bad guys still run the show, and there is no guarantee at all that tolerance will win out in the long run. Still, the dynamics have changed. By 1988, the Soviet Union was still regarded as a superpower, and the Warsaw Pact still intact. Yet once Mikhail Gorbachev's Glasnost had finally made it impossible for hawks to portray all residents of the Soviet Union as godless automatons bent on world domination, all-out war became almost impossible for the United States and its allies to contemplate.
As late as 1988, the U.S. military had nuclear-tipped Pershing II missiles standing at the ready inscribed with the names of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and dozens of other cities soon to be swollen with people demanding their freedom. Early that year, talks to remove the missiles were underway, and after the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty was signed in May, they were withdrawn, along with the Soviet SS-20s that prompted their deployment in the first place.
Could the world be close to something similar in Iran. Might serious talks finally be possible? Maybe, though Gorbachev actually ran the Soviet Union in 1988, whereas the moderates in Iran remain confined, so far, to the streets.
For now, as in Eastern Europe in 1988, the outside world will largely be confined to watching. Unless the hardliners are actually toppled in Iran, which at this point seems hard to imagine, the question probably becomes something like this: After all the unrest and bravery, did the backlash of 2009 force Iran's regime to fundamentally rethink its foreign policy, or did it simply crack down and jail dissidents, writing them off as dupes and fifth columnists for the Great Satan?
We just don't know at this point. But, as Meir Dagan's comments show, the weather is changing.
More by Michael Moran:
The madness of George
Opinion: Will Obama stand up to North Korea?
More on Iran:
The flight from Tehran
Iranian rockers find their voice
Protester vs. protester in Iran
Young, Iranian and ready for change