Iran Leader Hassan Rowhani's Moderate Stance Poses Dilemma to Israel Backers

Maintaining Hard Line on Nuclear Program May Be Tricky

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The surprising victory of Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rowhani may seem like a victory for those who would hope to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. It isn’t that simple.
getty images
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The surprising victory of Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rowhani may seem like a victory for those who would hope to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. It isn’t that simple.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 21, 2013, issue of June 28, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

The pro-Israel lobby followed suit with a similar message. In a memo issued on June 18, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said that Rowhani showed “no sign of moderation” on the nuclear issue and that he has “made crystal clear that he had no intention of pressing for a suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.”

Pro-Israel groups on the left took a different approach, offering a more positive outlook. J Street called election results “a potentially hopeful sign” and welcomed the White House’s offer for negotiations. The dovish lobby urged elected officials in the United States to “refrain from provocative actions or rhetoric which could jeopardize the opening for a diplomatic resolution.” Americans for Peace Now called Rowhani’s election “good news,” while stressing that he will be judged by his actions.

Countering the new president’s moderate image could be an uphill battle for Israel and for those who support Jerusalem’s line in the United States. Amid the initial flush of hope, they sought to remind the public and policymakers that Rowhani comes from the inner circle of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and that as nuclear negotiator between 2003-2005 he did not show any willingness to compromise.

“Everyone’s in love with him now,” an Israeli diplomat said. “People want to believe that it is all over and that he’s a guy we can sit down and close a deal with.” The diplomat, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak with the press, said that making the case against Iran would be harder now, because of Rowhani’s public image.

Bryen agreed. The new president, she said, is “very attuned to what he sounds like in the West”; she warned, however, that it “would be a mistake to think that because he speaks nicely he sees things like us.”

During his election campaign, Rowhani focused on promises to save Iran’s economy from the brink of collapse that it reached because of international sanctions. He made general statements regarding human rights and political freedom, but these issues were kept vague and came second to his economic agenda.

Still, his image as a reformer who could be more receptive to the calls of the Iranian masses poses another problem for Israel’s public diplomacy effort against Iran. Throughout the years, many of Israel’s supporters in the United States have used the regime’s dismal human rights record as a rallying cry to unite those who dislike the Iranian leadership because of its threat to annihilate Israel with those who oppose its treatment of the dissenters, of religious minorities, and of women and gay men and lesbians.

This bundling of Iran’s nuclear program with its human rights abuses could be harder to maintain if Rowhani succeeds in calming the opposition and appears to enjoy genuine, popular support.

“We have our own interests that, honestly, have nothing to do with the Iranian people,” said Shai Franklin, a senior fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. Franklin, who recently came out against the efforts by pro-Israel organizations to raise the human rights flag when dealing with Iran, added, “If we act in a way that appears to be cynical, this will be of no help to our cause.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.