Naive Roger Cohen Finally Wakes Up to Iran's Perfidy

After months of defending Iran and criticizing Israel, Roger Cohen looks at the election farce and admits: "I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness."

For the last several months, reporter turned international columnist Roger Cohen has filed naïve apologist columns about Iran, often attacking Israel in the process. Previously mocked for this embarrassing display of Obama-mania in March 2008, Cohen attracted negative attention on the foreign affairs front earlier this year by telling readers how good things really were for Jews in Iran. After that line of argument failed to convince, he then accused Israel of lying about the Iranian threat while constantly insisting that Iran was actually a functioning and reformist democracy. Cohenminimized the danger posedby Iran's demonized leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, excusing his anti-Israel rantings. And of course,Cohen strongly favored Obama's brand of diplomacy with Iran as opposed to Bush's hostility.

Cohen's Thursday column from Tehran, "Iran Awakens Yet Again," which ran in the Times international edition the day before the vote, featured some poorly timed fawning over Iran's "unpredictable" democracy.

Iran's democracy is incomplete (a Guardian Council representing the Islamic hierarchy vets candidates) but vigorous to the point of unpredictability. Nobody knows who will triumph in an election that chooses the second most powerful figure in Iran under the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but some things are already clear.

The first is that the frank ferocity of politics here in recent weeks would be unthinkable among U.S. allies from Cairo to Riyadh, a fact no less true for being discomfiting. The problem with Iran caricatures, like Benjamin Netanyahu's absurd recent description of the regime as a "messianic, apocalyptic cult," is that reality - not least this campaign's - defies them.

Of course, Cohen's picture of a reforming Iran crashed over the weekend, when Ahmadinejad defeated main rival Mir Hossein Moussavi with a staggering 63% of what was almost certainly a rigged vote. All too predictably, Ahmadinejad reacted to protests with a thuggish para-military presence.

Writing from Tehran today for the paper's international edition, "Iran's Day of Anguish," Cohen sounded a bit anguished himself.

I've argued for engagement with Iran and I still believe in it, although, in the name of the millions defrauded, President Obama's outreach must now await a decent interval.

I've also argued that, although repressive, the Islamic Republic offers significant margins of freedom by regional standards. I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.

Cohen concluded with fury (perhaps fueled by a sense of betrayal from a regime he'd spent so much intellectual capital defending):

Aharsh clampdown is underway. It's unclear how far, and for how long, Iranians can resist.

On Vali Asr, the handsome avenue that was festive until the vote, crowds swarmed as night fell, confronting riot police and tear gas. "Moussavi, Moussavi. Give us back our votes," they chanted.

Majir Mirpour grabbed me. A purple bruise disfigured his arm. He raised his shirt to show a red wound across his back. "They beat me like a pig," he said, breathless. "They beat me as I tried to help a woman in tears. I don't care about the physical pain. It's the pain in my heart that hurts."

He looked at me and the rage in his eyes made me want to toss away my notebook.