Israel's Netanyahu cautions against seeing big change in Iran

Israeli analysts, however, say that the election of a more moderate president in Iran will force Israel to adjust its public posture on the Islamic Republic.

Uriel Sinai/Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday. Mr. Netanyahu called on Sunday for no letup in international pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions after the election of a new president widely seen as a moderate.

For years, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spooked Israelis with talk of wiping the Jewish state off the map. But the victory of Hassan Rohani, known as a moderate, could pose an even bigger challenge for Israel, analysts say.

The shift from the incendiary Mr. Ahmadinejad to a president who advocates "constructive engagement" with the West over Iran’s nuclear program will require Israel to adjust its public posture toward Iran, say analysts.

Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the elections heralded little change and that Iran’s nuclear program is the top threat to world peace, the ascendance of Mr. Rohani could turn the tables in the mind of the international community.   

"Israel has lost an asset in Iran. That asset was Ahmadinejad. With his belligerent talk, he did the work for Israel by creating international consensus against Iran’s nuclear program," says Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian politics at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, a college in a Tel Aviv suburb. "Now we have the anti-Ahmadinejad as a president: someone who is moderate and talks about rapprochement. That means there is a change in Iran, and it is probably going [to] require a change in Israel regarding its narrative toward Iran."

The moderate image of the new Iranian president could recast Mr. Netanyahu – who repeatedly reminds the international community that Israel is ready to use force if necessary against Tehran’s nuclear program – as the leading proponent of armed conflict, the analyst said.

Speaking to the Israeli cabinet on Sunday morning, Netanyahu said that only heightened pressure and the threat of military action would deter Iran.

"Let us not delude ourselves. The international community must not become caught up in wishful thinking," said Netanyahu, who insisted that the Iranian regime still considers Israel a "Zionist Satan."  "Fifteen years ago, the election of another president, also considered a moderate by the West, led to no change in these aggressive policies." 

Netanyahu, who brags about rallying the West against Iran, noted Sunday that policymaking regarding foreign affairs normally resides with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not the president.

But Israeli analysts noted that Rohani’s experience as a negotiator will likely give him input on strategy regarding ongoing negotiations with the international community on Iran’s nuclear program. The president-elect’s approach is likely to lead to an agreement with Iran not to Israel’s liking, wrote Ephraim Kam, an Iran expert at the Institute for National Security Studies.  

Many Israeli critics of the government’s posture have stressed Iran’s internal opposition to the regime since the 2009 protests against the presidential election results. On Sunday, a former Israeli Mossad chief told Israel Radio that the vote was the biggest blow to Mr. Khamenei since becoming the supreme leader. Israeli officials should size up the fallout of the election more carefully before dismissing the results, he said.

Whatever the result, Israeli officials are likely to miss the days of the outgoing Iranian president, analysts noted with sarcasm.

"What will we do without the Persian Hitler? What will Bibi draw at the UN?" wrote Yigal Sarna in the daily Yedioth Ahronot. "We will have to rewrite the old narrative that contended that the Revolutionary Guard is the all-powerful force leading Iran toward the future and toward the bomb."

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