Rohani’s Charm Offensive Poses Difficult Challenge for Netanyahu

The Iranian’s sophistication coupled with America’s disdain for confrontation begs the question: where is Ahmadinejad when we really need him?

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Call it a charm offensive, seduction sortie, bewitchment blitz or wooing war, one thing is certain: Iranian President Hassan Rohani is waging an all-out public relations onslaught on American hearts and minds that poses unprecedented new challenges for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli policymakers.

Following initial skirmishes and reconnaissance patrols over the past few weeks on Twitter and Facebook, Rohani has now unleashed a preparatory salvo of moderate-sounding, peace-hugging statements on NBC and in the Washington Post. The main thrust of his campaign will be rolled out next week in New York, where Rohani will use his status as the star sensation of this year’s United Nations General Assembly to launch a barrage of interviews, speeches and public appearances, all aimed at convincing America of Iran’s benevolent policies and benign nuclear plans.

The attention, some of it fawning, that is already being bestowed on the so-called “moderate” Iranian president has confirmed the widespread assumption of most analysts following Rohani’s election in August as Iran’s 7th president: that it wouldn’t take long for Israel and other critics of Iran to sorely miss his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

After all, for the past 8 years, Israel’s efforts to convince the world and especially the U.S. to tackle Iran’s nuclear designs head on relied on two main figures: the relentless Netanyahu and the equally adamant, Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad. And with all due respect to Netanyahu’s formidable public relations prowess, it was Ahmadinejad who served as Israel’s number one talking point, its strategic propaganda asset, a poster boy who self-explained Tehran’s sinister designs.

Rohani, it should already be obvious, is a different kettle of fish altogether, a sharp and formidable foe that should not be underestimated. He is experienced, sophisticated and wise to the ways and wishes of Western audiences. Compared to Ahmadinejad’s deterring demeanor, Rohani appearance seems completely benign: his resemblance to Homeland’s likeable Mandy Patinkin has already become a viral Facebook hit.

As Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Rohani has confessed to engaging European concerns as a cover for accelerating Tehran’s nuclear program. His interview on NBC and his carefully crafted oped in the Washington Post show his capacity to appeal to American audiences while trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the “pressure groups” that support “troublemaker” Israel.

Confronting Rohani after years of dealing with the coarse and uncouth Ahmadinejad was bound to be a daunting task under any circumstances. Disparaging knee-jerk reactions, such as the one issued on Thursday by the Prime Minister’s Office about the Iranian president’s “fraudulent words” along with the obligatory too-clever-by-half pun about “spinning” the media in order to keep the centrifuges “spinning” wouldn’t have cut it any more, even in the best of times.

And the Syria chemical weapons confrontation may have created the worst of times, in fact, as far as making the case against Iran is concerned.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the deal hashed out between Russia and the U.S. to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons, events of the past two weeks have diluted the credibility of an American military threat against Iran, a sine qua non, in Netanyahu’s eyes at least, to convincing Tehran to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Obama’s decision to ask for Congressional approval for a military attack against President Assad’s regime achieved the opposite of what the president presumably intended: it solidified public and political opposition to a military attack, especially in cases where there has been no direct attack on American targets or U.S. personnel. The more the issue was discussed, the more the public’s opposition to an attack was cemented in stone. By the time the Russians intervened, America had effectively handed in its badge as the world’s only policeman.

The Syria debate has changed America’s political landscape on war and peace in ways that can’t be quantified before the dust finally settles. The reemergence of a strong anti-war faction on the Democratic Party’s left coupled with a widespread isolationist sentiment in the Republican party - even if it was partly motivated by anti-Obama sentiments – has created a political fait accompli in the form of a strong, bipartisan Congressional anti-war caucus.

When Netanyahu addressed Congress in May 2011 and received scores of standing ovations for his staunch anti-Iranian message, as well as throughout the recent presidential campaign, Democrats were still loyal to their president and Republicans were still the uber-hawkish opposition lambasting the president for not bombing Israel’s enemies to smithereens. Other than John McCain, everything has now changed.

And while Obama may feel indebted to Netanyahu, AIPAC and other Jewish organizations for enlisting in his cause of persuading Congress to support a military strike against Assad, it’s far from certain that the American public feels the same way. Whatever the justification for lobbying on Obama’s side – and there were a number of good reasons, including a direct, can’t-be-refused presidential appeal – the bottom line is that the Administration ultimately bailed and Israel and its supporters were left holding the proverbial bag.

To catapult straightaway from pushing an unpopular proposal to embroil the US in Syria to playing Debbie Downer on Rohani’s encouraging flirtations is a precarious undertaking which could lend credence to hostile claims of Israeli warmongering. It is a fine line that needs to be walked, one that requires less sledgehammer and more finesse, a trait not usually associated with Israeli hasbara efforts.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to overcome is that Americans are in a peace-in-our-time kind of mood, in which they would like to imagine that Vladimir Putin can really turn into a savior and Iran to a constructive mediator, a role that Rohani cleverly volunteered to fill in his Washington Post article.

It’s not so much American naiveté as a willing suspension of disbelief, for the sake of keeping American troops at home, its airplanes on the ground and its Tomahawk missiles in their pressurized canisters.

It’s like that old Tim Hardin song, made famous by Rod Stewart: “If I listened long enough to you, I'd find a way to believe that it's all true,Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried, Still I look to find a reason to believe.”

Netanyahu, who will come to America after the conclusion of next week’s mating rituals between Rohani and Obama at UN headquarters in New York, should bear in mind that refrain: Americans are looking for a reason to believe, not the other way round.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Iranian President Hassan Rohani. Credit: AP

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