PM: Don't be fooled by new Iranian president

Israel concerned president-elect Rohani’s transition period will buy regime more time for nuclear drive.

Netanyahu walking tough 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netanyahu walking tough 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Swimming against the tide of “cautious optimism” that characterized reactions in key capitals to Iran’s election of Hassan Rohani as president, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday Israel was not “deluding” itself and advised the world not to get carried away by “wishful thinking.”
“The international community must not become caught up in wishful thinking and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting, in his first public response to Rohani’s victory.
“We are not deluding ourselves,” he said. “We need to remember that the Iranian ruler [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] at the outset disqualified candidates who were not in line with his extreme worldview, and from among those whom he did allow, the one seen as least identified with the regime was elected.
But we are still speaking about someone who calls Israel the ‘great Zionist Satan.’” Netanyahu said in any event it was Khamenei who determines Iran’s nuclear policy, and not the country’s president.
“The more the pressure on Iran increases, the greater the chances of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, which still remains the greatest threat to world peace,” he said.
In a reference to former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005, Netanyahu said he, too – like Rohani – was considered moderate by the West, yet he did not bring about any change in Iran’s “aggressive” policies.
“Over the past 20 years, the only thing that has brought about a temporary freeze of the Iranian nuclear program was Iranian concern in 2003 about an attack against it,” Netanyahu said, alluding to fears in Tehran at the time that the US, which had just gone into Iraq, might do the same with Iran as well.
“Iran will be judged by its actions,” Netanyahu said. “If it continues to stubbornly develop its nuclear program, the answer needs to be clear: stopping its program by any means.”
Netanyahu’s remarks – similar in tone to skepticism he voiced two years ago when protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square brought down former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – contrasted with more conciliatory statements made in other capitals, such as Washington.
They also clashed with comments made by President Shimon Peres, who – unlike Netanyahu – said the election results bode well.
Peres told Reuters that Rohani said he would not go for “extreme” policies.
“I am not sure he specified his policies. But it will be better, I am sure, and that is why the people voted for him,” Peres said.
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In Washington, the Obama administration released a statement reflecting its cautious optimism that the integrity of the election was legitimate.
“Yesterday’s election took place against the backdrop of a lack of transparency; censorship of the media, Internet and text messages; and an intimidating security environment that limited freedom of expression and assembly,” the statement read.
“However, despite these government obstacles and limitations, the Iranian people was determined to act to shape their future.”
In an apparent nod to moderate overtures Rohani has already sent to the West, the White House said it remained “ready to engage...
directly” with Iran so that its government could make “responsible choices” on its nuclear program.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, another key interlocutor regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, released a statement saying that she remained “firmly committed to working with the new Iranian leadership toward a swift diplomatic solution of the nuclear issue.”
Rohani, and how the West should deal with him, is certain to be one of the main issues on the agenda when Ashton comes to Jerusalem for talks on Thursday.
Even though Ashton’s statement on the Iranian election underlined the need to find a “swift diplomatic solution,” one Israeli official said Jerusalem was concerned about what he described as the EU’s “default psyche” – which he described as “to engage.”
The official predicted a process whereby the EU will want to engage with the new Iranian president, but he will not formally take over his position until August, and then will certainly ask for more time to “get organized” and to name a new nuclear negotiator.
Israel’s concern, the official said, was that the EU’s reflex will be to give Rohani time.
“But we don’t have time to give,” he stated, “because the centrifuges are spinning.”
Another Israeli official said that Jerusalem’s primary concern, and the reason for Netanyahu playing a “spoiler” role on Sunday, was that the world will want to focus on the illusion the elections created, and not the reality.
“There is a concern that there are people who will embrace something that is illusory, a façade, just as in the past, when the Arab Spring started,” he said. “It is important to have a reality check.”
The official said Netanyahu was urging the world to follow the events in Iran carefully and focus on the centrifuges, because whether or not they keep spinning will tell the real tale of whether there will be a change in Iran’s nuclear policy.
“The vote is a protest vote against the leadership,” he said.
“Our concern is that although the Iranians are fed up with their government, that does not necessarily change reality or affect the nuclear program.”
Michael Wilner in Washington contributed to this report.