Israeli Government, Biden Admin Split in Reactions to Iran's Election

While Jerusalem is focusing on President-elect Ebrahim Raisi’s reportedly bloody past and denouncing Tehran’s ‘regime of executioners,’ Washington is continuing to pursue reentry into the Iran nuclear deal

Ben Samuels
Jonathan Lis
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi at a press conference in Tehran today.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi at a press conference in Tehran today.Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP
Ben Samuels
Jonathan Lis

WASHINGTON – In the three days since the presidential election results in Iran were announced, the reactions from the Israeli government and the U.S. administration have served as a reminder of the significant gaps between the two countries regarding the Iranian issue.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett used the victory of Iranian hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi to pressure world powers to reconsider their intention of signing a new nuclear agreement with Tehran.

Bibi brought Iran closer than ever to a nuke. Can Bennett fix it? LISTEN to Amos Harel

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has taken a different, more cautious approach, insisting that diplomacy with Iran remains the best way to stop the country from developing nuclear weapons.

“Of all the people that [supreme religious leader Ali] Khamenei could have chosen – and there should be no doubt, it was not the public who chose but Khamenei – he chose the ‘executioner of Tehran,’” Bennett said at the beginning of his government’s first weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.

He later said that Raisi was “notoriously known among the Iranian people and around the world for his role on the death committees that managed the executions of opponents of the government.”

Bennett called on world leaders to “come to their senses” and prevent a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement (aka the JCPOA). “It is perhaps the last signal to understand with whom they are doing business and what kind of regime they are choosing to strengthen,” he said, adding, “What is clear to all of us is that a regime of executioners must not possess weapons of mass destruction.”

Hours later, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was asked on ABC News if he agreed with Bennett’s reaction. Sullivan replied that the U.S. needs to “keep our eye on the ball,” meaning that the election results should not distract the Biden administration, in its own view, from pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran.

“Our paramount priority right now is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon – we believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve that rather than military conflict,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to negotiate in a clear-eyed, firm way with the Iranians to see if we can arrive at an outcome that puts their nuclear program in a box.”

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan listening to President Joe Biden last week.Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

Sullivan added that “whether the president is Person A or Person B is less relevant than whether their entire system is prepared to make verifiable commitments to constrain their nuclear program.”

Sullivan wouldn’t speculate on whether Raisi’s election increases the chances of a deal, but noted that the ultimate decision lies with Iran’s supreme religious leader. “He was the same person before this election as he is after the election; ultimately it lies with him and his decision as to whether he wants to go down the path of diplomacy or face mounting pressure – not just from the United States, but from the rest of the international community.”

These differing reactions are the latest example of how far apart Israel and the United States are when it comes to tackling Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The new Israeli government led by Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is interested in keeping those differences mostly behind closed doors, at least for the time being, instead of airing them like Bennett’s predecessor, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is visiting Washington this week for meetings with senior U.S. officials that will focus on this issue, ahead of the next round of negotiations with Iran.

The Israeli response to Raisi’s rise, according to officials who spoke with Haaretz, has been guided by several principles. First, the fact that the election was not democratic, since reformist candidates were banned from running. On this issue, the Israelis and Americans see eye to eye: The State Department also said in a statement that “Iranians were denied their right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair electoral process.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit: POOL/REUTERS

The second principle guiding Israel’s public diplomacy on the matter is the “satanic” figure of the Iranian president-elect. Lapid referred to Raisi as “the butcher from Tehran,” and said he is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians.

The other guiding principle is that Israel is not taking the option of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program off the table. That message was conveyed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz in a speech Sunday, during which he expressly stated that “all options to attack Iran are on the table.” He added that “Raisi’s election as president is evidence of the future and ongoing Iranian aggression. Israel will continue to develop the capabilities required to defend itself against any threat.”

Israel’s allies and supporters in Washington have also expressed a tough and skeptical line in response to the presidential election results, with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in the U.S., saying that Iran’s supreme religious leader “eliminated any contender who might stand in the way of his preferred candidate [Raisi] or challenge his authority.” AIPAC added that Raisi’s win “offers no prospect for moderation or reform.”

Rep. Ted Deutch, the Democratic chairman of the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism House Subcommittee, also called it a “sham election.” He noted that Raisi was “part of the commission that oversaw executions of thousands of prisoners in [the] Iran-Iraq war and now he is president. We will continue to speak out against the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses.”

While the U.S. undoubtedly hears the skepticism regarding Raisi’s election, its policy of “no surprises” concerning its relations with Israel remains in place.

For months, Sullivan has stressed his “profound and passionate” belief that the United States and Israel must communicate with each other on a going forward basis. This policy was echoed in Lapid’s readout of his conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week, and the U.S. will continue to pursue reentry into the nuclear deal prior to Raisi’s assuming power in early August, while minimizing any public airings of grievances with the Bennett-Lapid government.

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