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.
As a result, the Islamic Republic is not about to turn itself into a friend of Israel anytime soon. Its support for Hezbollah is going to remain intact, as will its ideological opposition to Zionism (it was actually the shah’s government that in 1975 voted in favor of the controversial “Zionism equals racism” resolution at the United Nations). It is safe to assume that no one in Rowhani’s Cabinet views Israel as a friend or even as a potential friend.
But there is also reliable information showing that his Cabinet is filled with individuals who view the degree of animosity between Israel and Iran under Ahmadinejad as highly counterproductive and counter to Iran’s national interest.
Rowhani’s interview with Iranian state TV is a case in point. Whereas Iranian hard-liners frame their position on Israel in terms of a religious duty to secure justice for Islam, Iranian pragmatists frame it in terms of restoring the rights of the Palestinian people.
The former approach is conveniently detached from the Palestinian cause and, as a result. not dependent on the wishes of the Palestinians themselves. Being more Palestinian than the Palestinians creates no contradiction as long as the defense of Islam warrants it.
The latter framing, however, provides the Iranians with a face-saving exit from the issue. If restoring the rights of the Palestinian people is the objective, Iran must then adhere to the wishes of the Palestinians themselves. It cannot be out ahead of them, criticizing agreements and terms that the Palestinians themselves find acceptable.
Using this frame, the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, president from 1997 to 2005, shifted Iran from its previous position on Israel, from a rejection of the two-state solution to supporting whatever agreement was acceptable to the Palestinians. Compare Iran’s noisy and disruptive profile during the early years of the peace process and its quiet and disengaged profile during the Camp David II talks in the year 2000. Compare Hezbollah’s conduct in the year 2000 and its behavior in 2006.
The Ahmadinejad government later reversed this shift and revitalized lines of attack against Israel that the Jewish state thought it had put to rest, such as questioning Israel’s right to exist. Ahmadinejad also began propagating the idea of a referendum to determine the fate of the Holy Land (knowing full well that the Palestinians will soon outnumber the Israelis), which challenged not only the Israeli government, but also that of the Palestinian authority.
Rowhani’s interview is a strong indication that he falls into the latter camp of pragmatists, focusing on the wound of the occupation rather than on ideological factors and objectives. According to one of his Cabinet ministers, he is a proponent of the reformist idea that Iran should adopt a “Malaysian profile” on Israel.
Much like Malaysia, Iran would be an Islamic state that does not formally recognize Israel and would occasionally criticize Israeli policies but refrain from confronting Israel directly. As I wrote in the Forward in December 2007, Iran would get out of Israel’s hair in return for an end to Israeli pressure on the United States to isolate and contain Iran. Iran would be an armchair critic of Israel, voicing its opposition to the occupation of Palestinian territories, but it would not interfere in the peace talks or add fuel to the fire.
To anyone concerned about Israel’s security, this would be a welcome albeit ultimately insufficient change. Additional steps would be necessary to achieve a lasting resolution. But for these first steps to materialize, Netanyahu must come to terms with the fact that Ahmadinejad has left Tehran’s political scene and that a new reality is emerging. On Israel, Rowhani is likely not Ahmadinejad 2.0 but Khatami 2.0. For an Israel interested in peace, that should be good news.
Trita Parsi is the founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council.