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Commentary Magazine’s John Podhoretz on the Iranian electoral crisis

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HH: I’m joined now by John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary Magazine. John is blogging at Commentary Magazine’s Contentions blog, John, welcome, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

JP: Love you, Hugh, how are you?

HH: I’m great. I’m watching transfixed by the events in Iran and the bloodbath today, the opening of fire, a little Tiananmen lite here. It’s not lite, but small. What do you see happening here? Could this regime unravel?

JP: I doubt it. I’m not an expert in Iran, but it does strike me that what we’re seeing here is a classic explosion of rage and frustration when you give people a little bit of freedom and then you manipulate it. That’s a very dangerous thing for an authoritarian, semi-totalitarian theocratic, irredentist regime to do. The Iranian people have a great many reasons to be, particularly if they’re young, to be angry and frustrated at the regime in power. Of course the great irony of this is that from our, from the standpoint of countries outside of Iran, and the countries threatened by Iran or by Iran’s march toward nuclear weaponry, some of this is a distinction without a difference. That is to say the difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad is a distinction without a difference. And in fact, you know, an argument can be made that the dumbest thing that the mullahs did was of course to allow Ahmadinejad to rig the election and not let Mousavi win, who obviously could have used a popular triumph to create one of these brain-fogging identities as a more Western, more friendly, more approachable person in the model of the Russian leaders of the 1980s that we were always told like scotch and Glenn Miller and that sort of thing precisely at a moment when they have an American administration who is thirsting to get into bed with them in some fashion.

HH: Now John, it does seem to me, though, that when you open fire on your own people, you’ve changed the equation so fundamentally that there’s no telling what could happen next.

HH: I don’t know, Hugh. I mean, totalitarian regimes have from the dawn of time opened fire on their own people. You know, that’s one of the things they have to do every now and then. I mean, you know, and sometimes it takes an external force, you know, particularly if the regime’s ideological as in Hungary or in Czechoslovakia in ’56 and ’68 was imposed on them from the outside. So it’s the Soviets…well, the Hungarians really did crush the Hungarian revolution on its own, but I mean it’s not as though totalitarian regimes don’t every now and then take a gun out and shoot people. The real question is when they don’t. I mean, that is to say, you know, if they issue the order that the military or the police are to stop a demonstration or an action at all costs, and the military or the police refuse to take the order, that’s when they’re in trouble. So the fact that the gunfire has taken place is a mark of the regime’s strength, not its weakness, because it’s still overcoming whatever resistance these people have to shooting at their own countrymen.

HH: Right, they’ve got grim resolve in the way that the Shah did not thirty years ago.

JP: Right.

HH: And that’s probably weighing heavy on their minds, that they know the Shah blinked when it came time for the ultimate sanction, and he was forced to leave. What do you want the United States government to do right now, John Podhoretz?

JP: I think the United States government should be encouraging to the extent possible, the greatest degree of confusion and internal division in Iran, and speaking up for what an election means, speaking up for the notion that this is what you get from a regime like this, using this moment as a teachable moment for the Muslim world about what elections are for, what the popular franchise means. Of course, I think as a result of the President’s speech in Cairo, having insisted that of course we’ll speak out for our own values, but we’ll never impose them on anybody else, he’s put himself in a very difficult position, because had he taken a more let’s say Western right view of the role of the United States in the world, and in proclaiming the universality of our ideas about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of the franchise, he would be in a very, very strong position to really change hats on the ground in a country like Iran.

HH: You know, over at Commentary Magazine’s Contentions blog, you’ve brought on Michael Totten. Hat tip to you. You were very smart. Jennifer Rubin was just quoting John McCain this afternoon about the sort of palsied reaction of the United States here. I really think new media’s running circles around old media on this, John Podhoretz.

JP: You know, it’s true and it’s not true. Here’s something that I was thinking about earlier today. You know, some of this footage is absolutely, it’s transfixing. And you watch these YouTube channels with the Iranian revolution going on. And it’s sort of amazing. However, we have no idea what any of this means. I mean, a lot of it’s taking place, a lot of, we can’t decipher the language, we don’t know what’s happening, we don’t know what we’re looking at. This is precisely the reason that you want a mainstream media that is functional, which ours isn’t, because what we need is people who know what on Earth is going on, to be interpreting what is going on, and telling us about it, because you know, I was thinking about Twitter, you know, all these tweets about…you know, I could be supplying tweets about what’s going on in, pick a city off the map, and just say there’s shooting.

HH: Yeah, that is clearly, that is clearly…

JP: It’s a real problem, I think.

HH: But the pictures, for example, Totten has put up pictures…Andrew Sullivan’s done a hell of a job this weekend, I must say. He has put up an extraordinary amount of material. And yeah, I had the same concern. Who knows if this stuff is true, but what I object to are people who are buying into the idea that Ahmadinejad won. I mean, this is so obviously fraudulent, John Podhoretz.

JP: Well, it’s a totally fraudulent election. And by the way, that doesn’t mean that he…the comedy of this is you know, maybe…that’s the whole joke about fraudulent elections. Maybe he did win.

HH: Who knows?

JP: Obviously, since they reported the results two hours after the polls had closed, with an 85% voter turnout, they had already decided what the percentage number was going to be before the election took place.

HH: Do you think America…

JP: So Ahmadinejad should have…you know, maybe he could have tried to gamble a little and trust that he was going to win in the first place.

HH: Or at least had had the modesty to win by a percent or less. John Podhoretz, 45 seconds or less, what is the interest level in this on the average American’s part? I’m fascinated, you’re fascinated. To me, it’s the way out of the nuclear dilemma if regime change, however remote, happens. But what do you think the average American thinks about this?

JP: I think it’ll grow. I think seeing a revolt in that part of the world, it will grow. The one thing I will say is you have to admit that the visuals, what we’re seeing here, you know, it’s a little disturbing, because what the visuals look like is that they look like a classic demonstration in a Middle Eastern country. It’s no different from the Palestinians screaming about Israel, or what the Iranian revolution itself looked like in 1979. This is not Yeltsin standing on the tank.

HH: You’re right about that.

End of interview.


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