Binyamin Netanyahu is a worried man. The results of the Iranian presidential
election were a deep disappointment, judging by his rhetoric lately. He’s afraid
that partners in the no-nukes-for- Iran coalition might be seduced by
descriptions of President-elect Hassan Rohani as a moderate.
reminding everyone that “moderate” is a relative term when it comes to
describing Iranian leaders, and Rohani, 64, is one of the Islamic revolution’s
founding brothers. He couldn’t have gotten on the ballot unless he passed the
supreme leader’s test for ideological purity and revolutionary
Adding to the Israeli leader’s angst was word that the Obama
administration – which faces a broad palette of unattractive options – is
anxious to take the measure of the new president, who had been his country’s
nuclear negotiator a decade ago. Obama’s chief of staff and former national
security adviser Dennis McDonough called Rohani’s election “a potentially
By referring to as Iran’s “so-called election,” Netanyahu
appears afraid the coalition will be seduced by the new post-Ahmadinejad tone.
Rohani recognized that in his Monday press conference when he noted, “on a
global level, our image has changed.”
He said he wants to reduce tensions
with the United States but stuck to the regime’s old demands that Washington
must stop “interfering in Iran’s domestic politics” and respect its nuclear
rights. He added that he would not suspend uranium enrichment.
own years as the chief nuclear negotiator, Rohani later boasted, he was
“creating a calm environment” with a temporary freeze on enrichment as a means
to stall for time while Iran secretly accelerated other aspects of its nuclear
program, which he strongly supports.
Obama, facing a fragile economy, a
depleted military and a nation wearied by two long, costly and inconclusive
wars, has been reluctant to confront the Iranians, who have used the talks to
buy time to accelerate their nuclear development.
Some in Israel are
wondering whether Rohani’s victory – the only relative moderate in a field of
conservative clerics – was a sign of real change or just a PR ploy to create a
false air of complacency to stall for time and ease the sanctions that have done
so much damage to the country’s economy.
Ephraim Kam of Tel Aviv
University’s Institute for National Security Studies cautions, “The moderate
image of the new president could help lessen the international pressure on Iran,
and later, perhaps even encourage a deal on the nuclear issue that would not be
acceptable to Israel.”
Netanyahu’s nervousness is reflected in the
Israeli media where many analysts and editorial writers are warning not to
confuse personality with policy, and that while Rohani may sound more civil than
his predecessor, he will still take orders from the same rabidly anti-American,
anti-Israeli supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, who controls the
military, security and nuclear apparatus.
As president, Rohani, like his
predecessor, will have no authority in those areas, but unlike Ahmadinejad, he
will bring a new tone to Iranian diplomacy. The big question is whether the
change will be style or substance.
The first hint may come when
negotiations resume, possibly by late summer; so far Khamenei has rejected any
Netanyahu, not known for his subtlety, gave a speech last
week at Auschwitz on the eve of the Iranian election and repeated a favorite
theme, comparing the Nazis and the nuclear threat from the Islamic republic, and
adding that the allies had not done enough to prevent the Holocaust. The
unspoken message was: don’t let us down again.
“The State of Israel will
do whatever is necessary to prevent a second Holocaust,” he declared once again,
calling for tightening the screws on Iran and warning that anyone expecting
change out of Tehran is “deluding” themselves with “wishful thinking.” Iran’s
nuclear program must be stopped “by any means.”
What he fails to state
clearly is what else this administration – which has presided over the toughest
sanctions yet and has repeatedly declared the military option is on the table –
can do, short of a war that this president and the American people don’t
Netanyahu fears a more reasonable sounding Iranian leader, one
interested in dialogue instead of demagoguery, could undermine international
resolve to keep the pressure on Tehran. “The greater the pressure on Iran the
greater the chances of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, which remains the
greatest threat to world peace,” he said.
He worries that even a delay in
implementing the next round of sanctions would be a setback in the
Look for Netanyahu to try to ratchet up the pressure on Obama,
and for that he can be expected to turn once again to his friends on Capitol
Hill – who are eager for new ammunition to use in their hyper-partisan war
against this president – and the Jewish community.
accommodate with more sanctions and demands for action without specifying what
they want, except that it be different from whatever Obama is doing.
president’s political opponents can be expected to repeat their charges from
their failed efforts in last year’s campaign to tag him as soft on Iran and an
unreliable friend of Israel.
Can Netanyahu resist the temptation to turn
up the verbal heat too far? Finesse is not part of his DNA. He is not very
popular among world leaders whose backing he needs to pressure Iran.
critical is his relationship with Obama, which both men worked very hard to
repair earlier this year.
That could be in trouble if Netanyahu is seen
overplaying his hand with congressional Republicans.
reason to expect the changed tone in Tehran will result in changed policy, but
the Obama administration – with few options available – will seek to test
Iranian intentions. And congressional Republicans – probably with the active
support of the Israeli premier – will do everything they can to portray that
diplomatic testing as surrender.