Hassan Rohani’s election as Iranian president in August 2013 was bad news for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As long as the Islamic Republic was openly being led by rabid hard-liners like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was much easier to portray Iran as a global pariah. Serious international negotiations wouldn’t take place while Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president.
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Rohani, though, was an entirely different prospect. Mild mannered and surrounded by like-minded ministers who spoke English well and were immediately labeled by the media, rightly or not, as “moderates,” his election paved the way to the negotiations that less than two years later resulted in the Iran nuclear deal.
Netanyahu tried hard to convince the world that Rohani was just a more user-friendly face for the same radical regime, calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But the international community was eager to engage with Iran and was simply relieved to be facing Rohani and his silver-tongued foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Yet now, after trying to brand Rohani and his circle as an integral part of the regime, no different or better than the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Netanyahu – at least in private – has got to be rooting for Rohani.
Over the last few days, Israel has been running a concerted campaign against Iran’s alleged plan to manufacture and upgrade missiles on Lebanese soil. It began on Sunday with a highly irregular article, written by IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis and published on Lebanese opposition websites, claiming that “Lebanon is turning into one big missile factory. ... Iran and Hezbollah are currently trying to build a precision missile factory.” It continued on Monday with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warning in the Knesset that “we know the sites for building and upgrading missiles in Lebanon, and we know the people who are involved in the manufacture.”
It also topped the agenda in Monday afternoon’s meeting between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. “I made it clear to Putin that we will not agree to these developments,” Netanyahu said afterward. And now a high-level Russian delegation is in Israel to continue discussions.
But while Israel is trying to work through Russia, which has replaced the United States as the main player in the region, its true objective is of course Tehran – more specifically, the power struggle going on there between Rohani’s group and the IRGC.
This is just the most recent round of Israeli threats to Iran. Over the last few months, there were similar warnings that Israel would prevent Iran from building bases and missile factories in Syria. Now it is Lebanon, and while the ground rules are slightly different there (Israel has carried out over 100 airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria over the last seven years, but refrained from doing so in Lebanon), the target remains the same.
Now, thanks to Lieberman, the threat level has become personal, with Israel basically saying that if it so chooses, it can assassinate Iranians involved in missile production. And Netanyahu has upped the stakes, saying that if necessary Israel will attack. Lieberman, however, admitted that the last thing he wants “is to get into a third Lebanon war.” And here at least he was telling the truth: Neither him nor Netanyahu believe it would be in Israel’s interest to embark on another all-out war to dislodge Hezbollah, which is why they are pinning their hopes on Rohani.
Senior Israeli intelligence officials believe there is a deep divide within the Iranian leadership on how to proceed now the Syrian civil war is in its last stages and the survival of Iran’s protégé, President Bashar Assad, has been assured.
The IRGC’s Quds force propped up Assad, until the Russians arrived in September 2015 and turned the tide in his favor. Iran has provided Assad with billions of dollars in funds and supplies over the past seven years. Now it wants to capitalize on its investment and build bases in Syria that will entrench its military presence there and support Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Rohani and his supporters, though, believe the extra billions earmarked for this are instead needed for Iran’s shaky domestic economy. By threatening to destroy any bases or factories, Israel’s leaders hope to give Rohani more ammunition to win his argument in Tehran. Why waste the money if Israel may then destroy the bases?
The recent wave of protests that swept Iran, and hasn’t totally died down, saw ordinary Iranians – particularly unemployed young men – chanting in the streets “No Gaza, No Lebanon, No Syria. My life for Iran!” Spending more money outside of the country is not popular and Rohani has already had some success in his budget battles, getting supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to agree to more funding for boosting the local economy instead of foreign adventures.
In Syria – so far at least – despite the IRGC having scouted locations for its bases, no major construction has proceeded. A combination of Israeli threats and domestic political circumstances seem to be doing the trick.
In Lebanon, though, both Iran and Hezbollah believe Israel is more wary of attacking so as not to provoke another war. Israeli intelligence believes construction of a precision-guided missile factory is now underway there. Israel’s leaders hope the latest round of threats will also give more grounds for the “moderates” in Tehran to argue that it’s a waste of resources and a risk of personnel.
For once, Netanyahu is rooting for Rohani.