Rowhani Is Good for Iran, Bad for Israel

ANALYSIS

Israel is very confused following the Iranian elections. Is President-elect Hasan Rowhani truly a moderate? Will he have an influence on the issues in his country that affect Israel, chief among them, the nuclear issue? No one in Yerushalayim has answers to these questions.

One thing is eminently clear to Israel: The option of a military strike against Iran has grown more distant — but not because Iran will be backing down
from its nuclear program. International pressure on Israel will now grow to do nothing, to wait and see where Iran is heading. And perhaps that was one of the reasons that Iran’s Supreme leader agreed to include Rowhani on the list of presidential candidates. He may have understood that he was the only man who would remain loyal to him on the one hand, and also help ease pressure on the religious leadership both by Iranian citizens and by those wanting to ramp up sanctions.

The West and Israel will need months to see where the
Iranian leadership is heading. Throughout this time, the centrifuges will continue to spin but Israel’s hands will be tied. That’s not good for Israel. Rowhani may have given hope to Iranians, but he’s bad for Israel, which doesn’t know how to digest his election.

At the same time, Israel is parting from the best hasbarah asset that it’s had for the past eight years: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The delusional Iranian president who called for the destruction of Israel and denies the Holocaust is being replaced by a president who is considered a moderate and even mentioned Israel by name this week, something no Iranian leader has done in decades.

Ahmadinejad’s comical image made it easier for Israel to illustrate to the world what kind of dangers it faced, and helped bring about the sanctions. Now the world will be calling for Israel to give Rowhani a chance. The Russians, Arabs and Chinese will persuade everyone that the new Iran, under Rowhani, is not the old, radical Iran that is galloping towards nuclear capability. But under the guise of this “moderate” regime, the country will continue developing nuclear weapons. Washington is also likely to pressure Israel to remove a military option until matters become clearer. And this is what Israel was afraid of on the eve of the elections: that the West would quickly adopt a pro-Iranian approach, believing that the Iranians truly are seeking a solution, when the opposite is the case.

The new president held a press conference last week at which he spoke of his willingness to open Iranian nuclear facilities to international oversight. Is he speaking on behalf of the religious leadership or is it a private stance? And who will be handling the day-to-day nuclear development, he or the supreme leadership?

Rowhani spoke a lot about the need to “compromise” with the West. Yerushalayim doesn’t know what he means. Does his idea of compromise mean that Iran is shifting positions on the nuclear issue, or does it mean a compromise on their terms? Concurrently, he spoke of the need to continue enriching uranium. This can be interpreted in numerous ways, and it is not yet clear which one he meant.

It is clear that Rowhani is aware of the suffering of his people and will do everything he can to lift the sanctions from Iran.

While Rowhani presents himself as a moderate, he is certainly not aspiring to change Iran from one extreme to the other. Even if he wanted to, no one would allow him to. His election has dimmed the chance of an Arab Spring in Iran.

It’s a honeyed trap however one looks at it. For Iranians, who wanted a change and got someone deemed a moderate, he is really far from giving the reformists what they wanted. It’s a trap for Israel, which knows he is not going to stop nuclear production but is making noises to the effect that he will.

The fact that Rowhani’s candidacy was not disqualified indicates that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei does not see him as enough of a threat or challenge. Nevertheless, his election does pose several issues for the religious leadership. First, there were difficult relations between Khamenei and the three previous presidents, Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad, which stemmed from a power struggle between the religious leader — who holds a lifetime position — and the elected president. Second, Rowhani’s election may spawn a resurgence of the reformist camp, which has laid low since it was quashed in the demonstrations of summer 2009. If that happens, Rowhani’s election may be a milestone in Iranian history. And third, the fact that Rowhani was elected with such a wide base of popular support may give him power against Khamenei and the conservative leadership. His election is perceived as a blow to the religious leadership.

With that, it is possible that Khamenei will take advantage of Rowhani’s moderate image to try and rescind the sanctions on Iran and improve its international standing without paying too heavy a price in the nuclear program.

The question is how much leeway Khamenei will give Rowhani; it’s safe to assume that it’s not much. It is more likely that in the coming months, Iran will state that it is ready to make tactical concessions on the nuclear issue, but Khamenei will not allow any concessions that are strategically significant.