One of the most significant results of Iran’s election of a relative moderate as its next president will likely be to postpone any Israeli decision on military action against Tehran’s nuclear program until next year.
Ever since U.S. President Barack Obama visited here in March, Israel has toned down its threats to attack, due to an agreement with Washington to wait until after the Iranian election.
But now, with Hasan Rowhani’s surprise victory last Friday, it seems the West will want at least several months to assess the meaning of this change. Until then, Israel will have trouble mustering international support for an attack on Iran. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s associates have frequently hinted that this will be the absolutely final year of decision on Iran, it seems he will have to wait another one.
More than a year ago, under heavy pressure from Israel and other American allies, Obama publicly announced that his policy was to prevent a nuclear Iran, not contain it. But opinions are divided on his willingness to back this statement with action. Obama has sought to reduce America’s military engagements overseas, and would be reluctant to launch a new military venture. This is evident from his handling of the Syria crisis, where even his decision to arm the rebels was reluctant and belated.
Though Obama has orchestrated unprecedently harsh international sanctions on Iran (which contributed to Rowhani’s victory by causing economic distress), he has shown no enthusiasm for either American or Israeli military action against it. Now, as the White House’s statement on Sunday made clear, he wants to give Rowhani − who was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator when it agreed to freeze its enrichment of uranium from late 2003 to early 2005 − a chance to negotiate a solution. And he wants Israel to give him time to make this attempt.
Rowhani’s statements after his election were largely aimed at Western ears. His message was that there is something to talk about, including on the nuclear issue. It’s hard to assess what the balance of power will be between the new president and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, given Rowhani’s trouncing of his conservative rivals. But it’s clear that only by easing the international sanctions can Iran ease its economic distress, and this will require signaling a degree of flexibility on the nuclear issue.
Israel’s skepticism about how moderate Rowhani really is, and its concern that the West is being naive about Iran, are completely understandable. Netanyahu has good reason to fear that Israel will be left alone on the battlefield while the West agrees to an inadequate compromise on the nuclear issue.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to understand Jerusalem’s sour response. What would it have cost Netanyahu to open Sunday’s cabinet meeting by congratulating the Iranian people on their courage in voting contrary to Khamenei’s expectations, and declaring that the outcome creates an opportunity to resolve the crisis peacefully?
Instead, the government played up an old statement of Rowhani’s that Israel is “Satan” − though this week, he actually referred to Israel by name instead of as “the Zionist enemy,” which is the usual Iranian term. Israel’s leadership is acting as though the only thing that interested tens of millions of Iranian voters was the regime’s policy toward Israel.
Another key question is how the election will affect the civil war in Syria. In recent months, Iran and Hezbollah haven’t hidden their efforts on the Assad regime’s behalf. The final decision will be Khamenei’s. But if the vote really attests to the Iranian people’s disgust with the regime’s direction to date, it’s possible that this could constrain Iran’s activities in Syria, or alter its obstructionist approach to international efforts to convene a peace conference on Syria.
Thus far, no credible statistics have been published regarding the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s losses in Syria. Unlike Hezbollah, which took an active role in the fighting and suffered hundreds of casualties, Iran has primarily been involved in behind-the-scenes activity − conducting training and supplying arms and technical expertise.
In the Lebanese media, some are already terming the Syrian conflict “Hezbollah’s Vietnam.” A similar debate among the Iranian public has barely begun − or at least, it hasn’t reached the media and social media outlets visible to the West. But it seems that soon Iranians, too, are likely to ask themselves why they should continue spilling Iranian blood to keep the Assad regime in power.