While the rest of the world cautiously welcomed the surprise election of Hassan Rowhani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood virtually alone in swiftly dismissing the Iranian centrist as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And when Iranian news agencies misquoted Rowhani as calling Israel an “old wound” that must be removed, Netanyahu was quick to declare himself vindicated.
“This statement should awaken the world from the illusion some have taken to entertaining since the elections in Iran,” Netanyahu’s statement said. “The president was replaced but the goal of the regime remains obtaining nuclear weapons to threaten Israel, the Middle East and the safety of the world.”
When it later emerged that Rowhani had been misquoted by the Iranian media — he had called the occupation “a wound” and had made no reference at all to Israel, nor had he expressed any desire for it to be destroyed — Netanyahu at first refused to retract his statement, and later put the blame on the international news agencies for having disseminated the misquotation.
But the quick condemnation and the reluctant retraction revealed Netanyahu’s strong desire to see Rowhani for what he wants him to be — a continuation of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s radicalism that made the campaign to isolate Iran seem almost effortless — rather than the change Rowhani actually might represent.
But what change might Rowhani bring to Iran’s posture on Israel?
Let’s first determine what changes Rowhani — or anyone else, for that matter — likely cannot bring to the Islamic Republic’s policy toward Israel. As I describe in my 2007 book “Treacherous Alliance — The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.,” Iran’s Israel policy is driven by both ideological and strategic concerns. On the strategic side, Iran has sought for decades to distance itself from Israel in order to avoid attracting Arab anger. Even the shah, who enjoyed very close security collaboration with the Jewish state, kept Israel at arm’s length in public.
Beyond the strategic concerns, the current regime in Iran also holds ideological animosity toward Israel, even though for the purposes of operational policy, the ideological factors are secondary.