Washington Watch: Iranian elections worry Netanyahu

PM fears partners in opposition to a nuclear Iran might be seduced by descriptions of president-elect Hassan Rohani as moderate.

Hassan Rohani 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi RH/CJF/AA)
Hassan Rohani 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi RH/CJF/AA)
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.
He is 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 zeal.
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 hopeful sign.”
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.
During his 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 concessions.
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 want.
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 campaign.
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.
Congress will accommodate with more sanctions and demands for action without specifying what they want, except that it be different from whatever Obama is doing.
The 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.
More 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.
There’s little 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.

©2013 DouglasMBloomfield