Hassan Rohani signs of the guest book of the UN Secretary General. September 26, 2013.
Hassan Rohani signs of the guest book of the UN Secretary General. September 26, 2013. Photo by AFP
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trip to the United States and his speech to the United Nations General Assembly will probably not stop the international shift in Iran’s favor. The speech by Iranian President Hassan Rohani to the General Assembly achieved its goal - selling a more moderate image of Tehran and the renewal of negotiations on limiting the Iranian nuclear program in a better atmosphere than that of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even if he prepared a brilliant speech this time, Netanyahu knows that at best he can only expose the cracks in the new front Iran is displaying to the world; he will not be able to turn things around.

In his meetings in Washington and New York, Netanyahu will not be able to convince the Obama administration to lead an American attack on Iranian nuclear sites - and will also not even allow a hint of an inclination toward an Israeli attack on Iran.

The handling of the Iranian nuclear question is now entering a channel where much is known in advance: A few rounds of talks between Iran and the six world powers, at the end of which a compromise acceptable to both sides will be reached - though not necessarily acceptable to Israel. The possibility of a military attack on Iran will be discussed again only in the event that the diplomatic contacts end in a clear failure, and in any case it will only be on the agenda from next spring and afterward.

Slippery slope

What Netanyahu wants to achieve now is a different goal: to prevent America from sliding too fast down what the prime minister sees as the slippery slope.

Netanyahu will seek to prevent erosion in the demands the world powers set for Iran - Israel had wanted them to be stricter - and no less than that, to prevent an easing of the sanctions on Tehran before a final agreement is reached.

The economic sanctions have already led to a depreciation of the Iranian currency, the rial, of 75 percent in relation to the dollar, and have caused enormous damage to the Iranian economy. Rohani is interested in achieving an easing of the sanctions already at the start of negotiations as a confidence building measure.

A wide range of sanctions were imposed on Iran in recent years by the U.S. president, Congress, the UN Security Council and the European Union. U.S. President Barack Obama is authorized to ease only the sanctions he himself imposed. But the sanctions that led to the change in Iran's position were imposed first and foremost by the U.S. Congress, in 2011 legislation sponsored by Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez. The legislation, which the Obama administration initially opposed, cut Iran off almost completely from the international banking system, forcing it to rely on barter deals instead of cash for selling its oil.

The House Foreign Relations Committee was also a partner in this important move. Senior committee members Ed Royce and Eliot Engel are now actually speaking of the need to make the sanctions stricter to increase the pressure on Iran. This, in a nutshell, is the present battle: If Rouhani came to New York to open the tap, Netanyahu’s goal is to tighten it a turn further so Iran remains under pressure and agrees to a deal Israel also finds acceptable. Netanyahu has great support in this effort from traditional supporters of Israel in both parties on Capitol Hill. The question is whether that will be enough this time.

Meanwhile, Rohani seems to have the upper hand in the international arena. The position he presented this week in the United Nations drew an almost collective sigh of relief from Washington, stretching from the extreme right-wing isolationists to the sick-of-war liberals on Obama's side. They hope that finally there is a sane president in Iran, and that along with the hardline Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei turning a blind eye, this will save the Americans from a third 21st-century war in the Middle East.

But Rohani, who warned of "Iranophobia" in the West, has not gone all the way. He declined to shake hands with Obama or meet him, he was not even present in the hall when Obama gave his speech to the General Assembly. Rohani's actions are not necessarily going over well at home though. Khamenei and Rohani spoke at a gathering of Revolutionary Guards officers this month, and the Supreme Leader spoke of the need to demonstrate "heroic flexibility" on behalf of Iranian interests. The leaders of the Revolutionary Guards did not particularly love the message, and in particular the claim that they should concentrate their efforts on defending the country instead of getting involved in determining strategic policy.

A number of media outlets have reported a stormy debate in Tehran over the degree that Iran can compromise with the West. After Rohani was interviewed on CNN this week and quoted as saying he recognized the fact of the Holocaust - in contrast with the policy of his predecessor - the official Iranian Fars news agency quickly announced that Rohani had been misquoted and that the translation was incorrect.