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.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.