Israel Is Ignoring the Neighborly Hand Extended by Iran

Israel fears losing its justification for an attack on Iran and that the U.S. will fall for Hassan Rohani's 'smooth' talking.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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The only country in Syria's neighborhood that has not put its military on war alert is Iran. While the armies of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and, of course, Israel are flexing their muscles and moving troops and chemical warfare teams toward the Syrian border, Iran gives the impression that the threatened attack on Syria does not concern it militarily. True, Iran is not a country under threat, at least not at this stage, but it is also not at all sure that Syrian President Bashar Assad can continue to protect Iran's national interests and its position in the region.

There are increasing numbers of public pronouncements along the lines of, “We believe that the government in Syria has made grave mistakes that have, unfortunately, paved the way for the situation in the country to be abused,” as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reportedly said last week in an interview with the Aseman Weekly. According to another report, Ala Al-Din Boroujerdi, the chairman of Iran's Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy, made it clear to Assad that "Iran has not made a deal with the West to overthrow Assad, but will also not take part in the military campaign to defend him."

The Iranian professor and commentator Sadegh Zibakalam, who writes for the reformist paper Etemaad, presented the dilemma concerning Syria from a new and original point of view. If Syria is attacked by the West, he wrote, relations between Syria's allies and the West will be so cold and dark that the new Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, will have no chance of reducing tensions and improving relations with the West. In such conditions, Rohani would find himself sitting alongside military officers, while detente with the West will not only be be off the agenda, but Rohan imay find himself removed from office, wrote Zibakalam.  

Mohammad Ali Subhani wrote in Bihar that the Iranian government has the responsibility to first take care of the Iranian people and fulfill its promises and commitments to its own citizens. Therefore, it should not stray from ite moderate policy and should not let events in Syria influence its internal affairs.

And when Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan states there is no need to send troops or arms to Syria, and Iran did not intend to do so since Syria does not need aid, it is possible to conclude that, instead of the previous narrative, in which an attack on Syria would be seen as an attack on Iran, a new narrative is developing: Syria is now a burden.

The election of Hassan Rohani as president had a clear, major and agreed-upon objective: To end the sanctions on Iran, so it could return to full economic activity without giving up its own "interests.” Included in the phrase “interests” is the ability to continue to develop its nuclear technology. On the face of things, these are two contradictory principles, but Rohani is striving to resolve the contradiction through renewed diplomacy - a new sort of dialogue with the West, based on a new and calming vocabulary that includes recognizing the fact of the Holocaust, New Year's greetings to the Jews, reopening the activity of the British Embassy in Tehran and entrusting nuclear negotations to the foreign ministry and its new leader Zarif, instead of the Supreme National Security Council.

These changes are viewed in the West as cosmetic, and the West demands proof of Iran's intentions. But even cosmetics can be strategic, especially when they have the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The first important international public test for Rohani will come this month, when he makes his first speech in the United Nations General Assembly; a speech, in which the world expects to hear how Iran intends to give practical expression to the new winds blowing from its direction. Rohani is not expected to announce an Iranian intention to freeze uranium enrichment in its nuclear facilities or to halt the development of nuclear technology. But an announcement of "full transparency" - including, among other things, UN inspection of the Parchin facility and other sites that have been barred to inspection until now - will be more than just a signal of a strategic change in Iran's policies.

So far, the statements of Rohani and his senior officials give no indication of practical plans to freeze or reduce uranium enrichment; even less so the range of concessions that Khamenei will allow Rohani to make. Nonetheless, the absence of the aggressive declarations that characterized former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - such as "Iran will never give up its right to enrich uranium" - and the discussions that Zarif is holding with EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton on setting an early date for a meeting of the P-5 Plus 1 group, could be a clear sign of more than just "cosmetic diplomacy."

This change is waiting for a response from the West. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres did not bother to respond to the Rosh Hashanah greetings from the Iranian president. Instead Netanyahu chose to stick to threats and to disparage Rohani's gesture. Israel’s fear of losing its justification for an attack on Iran and the fear that the United States may yet "fall into the trap" set by the "smooth language" of the Iranian president is driving it crazy. There is no disagreement that Iran will be judged by its actions and not its words, but even in the existing state of hostility between the two countries, it is not superfluous - and possibly even beneficial - to preserve a certain level of courtesy.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani.Credit: AP