Tel Aviv — The unexpected electoral victory in Iran of moderate presidential candidate Hassan Rowhani has reawakened an ongoing debate in Israel about how to craft public diplomacy toward Tehran.
Though President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad spooked Israelis with talk of wiping the Jewish state off the map, the ascendance of Rowhani, a worldly politician and former nuclear negotiator, may pose a more complicated challenge for Israel, say analysts.
The results of the vote have the potential to recast Israel rather than Iran as the hardliner, and stoke up new tension over a timetable for potential military action. Some Israeli experts said they believe that the election results could delay the U.S. timetable for an attack by a year as officials size up Rowhani’s influence.
In the first days after the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned Israelis and the world against “wishful thinking” that the elections would herald change, and called on the international community not to ease up on economic sanctions or the threat of military force against Iran.
While he acknowledged that the election results reflected widespread public dissatisfaction with the regime, Netanyahu has emphasized that it is Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who determines nuclear policy, not the president.
“Rowhani doesn’t count. He doesn’t call the shots,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Reuters.
Netanyahu’s comments reflect the widespread skepticism here that any presidential candidate pre-approved by the regime would change course from Iran’s longtime pursuit of nuclear weapons.
However, Israeli critics of the prime minister’s handling of Iran said he had made a mistake by being so quick to dismiss the shift in Iran, comments that put Israel’s response seemingly at odds with those of its Western allies.
“We need to give it a chance,” said Yitzhak Herzog, a Knesset member from the opposition Labor party in an interview with Israel Radio. “There is a new situation. It’s possible to say that nothing new has happened. And it is possible to say, ‘Let’s see where it leads to,’ because something has happened.”
On Sunday, former Israeli Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy told Israel Radio that the vote was the biggest blow to Khamenei since the ayatollah became Iran’s supreme leader in 1989. Israeli officials should wait to assess the fallout of the election more carefully before dismissing the results, he said. “I would leave my talking points blank, except for two words: wait and think,” Halevy said.
To be sure, the track record of past Iranian leaders perceived as moderates suggests that Israeli leaders have good reason to be skeptical. The eight-year tenure of Mohammed Khatami only brought about a temporary halt in the Iranian nuclear program.
“Until now this issue has been driven by the ayatollah, and not whether the leader is a moderate or an extremist. Having said that, this is an extraordinary situation in which the polls suggest a wide repudiation of Khamenei,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“We’ll know soon enough at the negotiating table if there is a Rowhani bounce. … You can be skeptical without being dismissive.”
Though another round of nuclear talks is scheduled in the coming months, Israeli experts believe that it could take the U.S. administration the rest of the year to fully assess the impact of Rowhani. That would put pressure on Netanyahu because last September, in a speech at the United Nations, he suggested that this summer Iran would cross the “red line” of producing enough uranium to create a nuclear bomb.
“Israel will be hard pressed to enlist international support necessary for an independent strike on Iran. So 2013 is liable to become a lost year from Netanyahu’s perspective,” wrote defense analyst Amos Harel in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. “Israel will be asked to give more time so the picture can clear up.”
Could that drive a wedge between Israel and the U.S. over Iran?
Ephraim Kam, a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, wrote that the election of a moderate former nuclear negotiator could result in some sort of diplomatic deal between Iran and the West that is not to Israel’s liking.
Rowhani is viewed as a pragmatic negotiator whose knowledge of multiple languages will impress Western leaders. He has said that Iran has a right to continue to enrich uranium, though he has expressed willingness to boost transparency of Iran’s nuclear program.
Makovsky believes that the U.S. isn’t likely to be easily tempted by the new Iranian president in the upcoming negotiations.
“We’ve been around the block on this one. It’s got to be ‘show me.’ We know what the positions are,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to lead the U.S. to think that we’re going to start from scratch now.”
The vote results could also lead to a rift between Israel and Europe, said Dore Gold, a former foreign policy adviser to the prime minister. He said that businesses will place “enormous” pressure on European governments to renew trade ties with Iran and ease economic sanctions.
“Looking at Hassan Rowhani’s negotiating tactics, he’s more a fox than a dove,” Gold said. “He knew how to exploit the negotiations to remove international pressure on Iran and allow the engineers to move the program forward.”
At the same time, Gold said that Iran’s anti-regime vote exposed rising public pressure on the supreme leader to improve ties with the West. The entire country has been suffering under economic penalties imposed by the West due to its uranium enrichment. The president-elect has promised to improve the economy, something that the outgoing president is accused of ignoring. That means, he may be willing to do more to have sanctions removed.
“But if the West feels now is the time to reach an agreement at all costs it might not take advantage of the hand that it was delivered,” he said.
Israeli observers took note of the fact that, during Rowhani’s first press conference, he used the word “Israel” instead of “Zionist” — a sign, perhaps that the Iranian regime might soften its posture toward Israel after Ahmadinejad’s remarks on Holocaust denial and rejection of Israel.
Indeed, experts here have suggested in sarcasm that Israel might come to miss the lame-duck president.
“Israel has lost an asset in Iran. That asset was Ahmadinejad,” said Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer at the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Center. “With his belligerent talk he did the work for Israel by creating international consensus against Iran’s nuclear program. Now we have the anti-Ahmadinejad as president. That means there is a change in Iran and it is probably going require a change in Israel regarding its narrative toward Iran.
“When you have a moderate president in Iran and Bibi continuing to threaten war, then we’re going to look like the warmonger.”
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