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Iran's election a major setback for conservatives -- in America

If a moderate won, how can neo-cons justify another Middle East war?

By David Horsey

6:00 AM EDT, June 25, 2013

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The election of Hasan 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, Mr. Rowhani is a moderate. In the Iranian media, he is called the "diplomat sheikh" and the "sheikh of hope." In his initial press conference after the election, Mr. Rowhani said he would work to build trust between Iran and the United States, Great Britain and other Western powers with the goal of getting the international sanctions lifted that have crippled Iran's economy.

Those sanctions exist, of course, because, under Mr. Rowhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran has been surreptitiously moving toward building nuclear weapons. For the neocons, Mr. 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 upon 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 pre-emptive 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 hardcore 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. Mr. 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 Mr. Rowhani and the more progressive side of the Iranian populace a chance to reform their system and tame the radicals. The last thing Mr. 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.

The neocons, meanwhile, will have to back down, retire to their think tanks and hope for the worst before they start rattling their sabers again.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.