In parts of US and Israel, Iran's Ahmadinejad is sorely missed

Why will his absence be mourned as new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gears up for his UN debut?

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during Friday prayers ceremonies, after attending an annual nation-wide pro-Palestinian rally marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Aug. 2, 2013.

If you wanted war with Iran over its nuclear program, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was your man.

Holocaust denial, suggestions that Israel needs to "vanish from the page of time," vows that no one could stop the Islamic Republic if it wanted a nuclear weapon, and claims that a nefarious cabal inside the US government was behind the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington – he seemed to relish inflammatory rhetoric whenever he had the world's attention.

One of Mr. Ahmadinejad's favorite venues for such comments was the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, and from 2005 until last year, he rarely missed a chance to stir the pot.

To be fair, President George W. Bush's infamous "axis of evil" speech (that named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea) was only three years earlier – not exactly the sort of thing to reduce international tension itself. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad's choice of words throughout his time as president not only kept tension simmering, but was also cited as evidence that Iran couldn't be negotiated with over its nuclear program or anything else. The only thing that would deter the country from its chemical weapons program (that Iran insists does not exist) was force, the argument went. "Just listen to that guy!" was the refrain. "He's crazy and dangerous."

So the replacement of Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rouhani, a political rival who favors deescalation with the US and more diplomatic rhetoric, would be good news, right? 

Not for everyone, apparently. The Obama administration may be considering positive gestures of their own towards the new Iranian president (a White House spokesman today said that a meeting between Obama and Rouhani, the first between a US and Iranian president in 33 years, hadn't been ruled out), but Israel and many friends of Israel are deeply alarmed at the prospect.

As Mark Landler wrote in The New York Times yesterday ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech tomorrow at the UN:  "The Israeli government, clearly rattled by the sudden talk of a diplomatic opening, offered a preview Sunday of Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-edged message, in which he will set the terms for what would be acceptable to Israel in any agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 'A bad agreement is worse than no agreement at all,' the Israeli official said, reading a statement from the prime minister’s office that he said reflected Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks."

In a statement last week, Mr. Netanyahu said: "The Iranians are continuing to deceive so that the centrifuges continue spinning. The real test lies in the Iranian regime’s actions, not words... while Rouhani sits down for interviews, he also continues to move ahead with the nuclear program. The Iranian regime’s goal is to reach a deal that would require it to give up an insignificant part of its nuclear program, while allowing it to … charge forward quickly toward (acquiring) a nuclear weapon whenever it chooses.”

Pro-Israel hawks in Congress see it similarly. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R) of Florida, said it would be a mistake for President Barack Obama to sit down with Rouhani when he's in the US this week. Supporters of dialogue think the new Iranian president offers an opportunity for constructive engagement absent for years, but she says that Rouhani's friendly words mask sinister intentions.

"Rouhani is a master of deceit who has been putting on an all-out charm offensive since he took office, replacing Ahmadinejad. In many ways Rouhani is much more dangerous than Ahmadinejad," she said in a statement. "At least with Ahmadinejad you get what you see – his hatred for Israel and the United States is not disguised with rhetoric or spurious gestures of goodwill... The Administration must not fall for this charm offensive, and must increase the pressure on the regime with more sanctions until Iran completely abandons its nuclear pursuit and dismantles its program."

So in her view, Rouhani's comments are all about concealment and deception, evidence that he is untrustworthy and the only way to deal with Iran is to demand its total capitulation – even before Iran's leader can get a face to face with the US president. 

Is that likely to be forthcoming? It hasn't happened for decades yet.

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