Washington — The cheers of joy heard in the streets of Tehran celebrating Hassan Rowhani’s victory in the Islamic Republic’s presidential elections died off by the time they reached Jerusalem. Israelis and pro-Israel activists in the United States watched with more than a grain of concern the election of a leader hailed by the West as moderate and as a reformer.
For Israel and many of its American supporters, highlighting the new president’s moderation and his willingness to engage with the United States could spell trouble for a hard-line approach toward Iran’s nuclear program.
At risk for the pro-Israel community is more than a renewed willingness in Washington and European capitals to give negotiations with Tehran — which have so far led to no results — yet another chance. Supporters of Israel also fear the loss of the strong sentiment opposing the Iran’s regime that was shared by many in the West, and was fueled, at least in part, by the cartoonish figure of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose rhetoric spanned from Holocaust denial to gay bashing — with a fair amount of anti-Semitism in between.
Rowhani, a soft-spoken cleric who was educated in Scotland and is fluent in English, offers an opposite image, one that some in the pro-Israel community worry could deceive America and its allies.
“It is a problem for the pro-Israel community, because very soon we will be told, ‘We have to help the moderate,’ and that cannot be good for Israel,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center, a Washington think tank affiliated with the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Bryen argued that Rowhani is by no account a moderate, adding, “It was easier with a guy like Ahmadinejad, who stood there, shouting, ‘There is no Holocaust.’”
These concerns became clear as diverging reactions to the surprise election of Rowhani began to emerge from Washington and from Jerusalem.
In a June 17 interview with the Public Broadcasting Service, President Obama praised the Iranian people’s choice, saying it shows they “want to move in a different direction.” Obama added that voters in Iran “rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything, anytime, anywhere.”
The reaction coming from the office of Israel’s prime minister, in Jerusalem, by contrast focused on Rowhani’s commitment to continue Iran’s nuclear program. “We cannot delude ourselves. Wishful thinking is not a substitute for policy,” Benjamin Netanyahu said during a June 18 meeting with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Netanyahu warned against viewing the new political winds in Tehran as cause for another lengthy negotiation process over the nuclear issue. “We cannot let Iran ride out the clock through endless talks,” he said.