With a Moderate as Iran's New Face, Netanyahu Will Struggle to Draw Up Support for an Attack

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Today Israel bids a sad farewell to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that unexpected asset to Israeli public diplomacy, who served it so well during his eight years as president of Iran.

Although Ahmadinejad didn’t have much of a role in the formation of Iran’s nuclear policy − as he himself recently admitted − his somewhat grotesque figure and his hallucinatory statements made it easier for Israel to illustrate the danger inherent in the possibility that the extremist ayallotah regime could get its hands on weapons of mass destruction.

Ahmadinejad’s designated successor, Hasan Rowhani, who was the surprise victor in this weekend’s presidential election ‏(Ahmadinejad’s first victory in 2005 was also unexpected‏), is a different story entirely. Rowhani’s election is good news for the Iranian people. It remains to be seen whether it will also be good news for Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can’t be very happy. He saw the Iranian presidential election as a scam: eight almost identical candidates who were allowed to compete only in accordance with the dictates of the supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. With Rowhani as the new face of Iran − someone who’s more moderate, wants the international sanctions removed and who won’t get caught up in the Holocaust-denial demagoguery so favored by his predecessor − Netanyahu will have a hard time convincing the world that his plan to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities is necessary.

The question still remaining is whether Khamenei, who is the exclusive determiner of nuclear policy, will interpret the election results as a demand by the people to compromise on nuclear matters ‏(with the aim of reducing the economic sanctions in force against Iran and shoring up the economy‏) or whether he will stick with the usual Iranian tactic of playing endlessly for time, using the new president to present a more moderate image to the international community but not making any real concessions.

Rowhani has an extensive background in nuclear issues. He was the one negotiating with the West on these issues early last decade. In a recent television debate between the candidates, conservative Saeed Jalili ‏(the current negotiator‏) criticized him for coming to a compromise with the West in 2004, when he agreed to a temporary freeze of Tehran’s nuclear program out of concern for what might follow the American invasion of Iraq.

A decisive victory by Rowhani in the first round was not forecast by anyone, neither within Iran or outside it. This shows us once again how difficult it is − for the media, academics, even intelligence agencies − to predict shifts in public opinion in the countries in this region.

During the last election, in 2009, amid claims that the regime had falsified the results in the conservatives’ favor, the “green revolution” erupted, a popular uprising that was brutally suppressed by the government within a few weeks. It could be that the gap in favor of the more moderate candidate was so great that the regime couldn’t even consider altering the results again.

Many in the Arab world see the 2009 Iranian uprising as the harbinger of the Arab Spring that began 18 months later. What happened in Iran surely influenced the eruptions in Tunisia and Egypt. Now events have come full circle, as the turmoil in the Arab countries emboldened Iranian voters to choose a candidate who wasn’t preferred by the regime.

It would be wise for Israel to keep a low profile with regard to declarations on Iran during the next few weeks. At the same time, it will have to make it clear to the Obama administration that America cannot stop pressing the Iranians to halt their nuclear program just because of the presidential election results. U.S. President Barack Obama’s record on the Syrian civil war, in which Tehran is providing considerable assistance to the Assad regime, isn’t particularly encouraging.

Until the elections, Iran showed no signs of backing down on the nuclear issue. Iranian researcher Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued in an informative article last week that Khamenei is more worried about what he sees as a Western cultural assault on his country than by the economic sanctions that have resulted from his devotion to the nuclear project.

According to Khalaji, Khamenei is obsessed by the notion that the White House is conspiring with Hollywood, Google and Apple to capture the minds and hearts of millions of Iranians. The supreme leader even believes that the Academy Award for Best Picture was given to “Argo” ‏(about the rescue of American hostages from Iran during the revolution‏) and presented by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of an elaborate scheme by the administration.

The conclusion, argued Khalaji, is that one shouldn’t underestimate the influence of “soft power,” alongside sanctions, on Iranian policy. 

Hasan Rowhani flashing the victory sign after leaving a polling station in Tehran, June 14, 2013.Credit: AFP
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Hassan Rowhani gestures to his supporters at a rally in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 1, 2013.Credit: AP
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Rowhani supporters celebrate outside his campaign HQ in TehranCredit: AP
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A supporter of new Iranian president Rowhani in Tehran.Credit: AP

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