How fickle is public opinion in Israel? Just a week ago, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was flagged as Israel’s enemy No.1, a frightening foe and a clear and present threat to our very existence. Today, as the Middle-East awakens to a new political reality in Iran, suddenly there are voices in Israel implying that we may end up missing Ahmadinejad, as better the devil we know than the devil we don’t. While slightly overly dramatic, this opinion may be not totally unfounded.
On the one hand, and at least outwardly, the election of Hassan Rowhani holds some promise. Considered a moderate and somewhat of a reformist, he has pledged to engage more with world powers in the hope of easing the crippling economic sanctions. Rowhani headed Iran’s nuclear negotiating team in the early 2000’s under President Mohammad Khatami. He has also been an outspoken critic of outgoing President Ahmadinejad, accusing him of needlessly antagonizing the international community.
In Iran, the president runs the economy and wields important influence in decision-making, so Rowhani’s rise could offer latitude for a thaw in Iran’s foreign relations and more social freedoms at home after eight years of confrontation under Ahmadinejad.
However, to really gauge the potential for change, one must keep in mind that the real power broker in Iran is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who vetted the final list of candidates for the presidency, and approved Rowhani’s application despite his past support for the Green Movement of 2009 which openly challenged the legitimacy of the Ayatollah regime.
Rowhani has a reputation for avoiding extreme positions and bridging differences, but he is no dove. He has a long history of service in the country’s defense establishment. He is a former commander of the Iranian air defenses, a leader on three war and defense councils, and was national security adviser to the president for 13 years before Ahmadinejad took office. He never actually participated in the Green Movement, and was never an active reformist. So, a moderate – yes, but only in comparison to his predecessor.
Indeed, though he would have preferred a different outcome (i.e. Saeed Jalili), in many ways Rowhani’s election is perfect for Khamenei. Outwardly, the world sees a more conciliatory face to Iran. Inwardly, Rowhani’s election is likely to mollify the spreading social unrest resulting from the dire economic situation. But ultimately, Rowhani is a religious cleric and a close friend of the Islamic revolution, and will follow the line dictated by the Supreme Leader and his executive arm – the Revolutionary Guard, which is steadily continuing the nuclear program, and rehabilitating the economy. To continue spinning the centrifuges, a calm and pressure-less environment is precisely what the Iranian nuclear plan needs. There is no better way to mask this but by using a nicer face. Not Khamenei’s, but a face easier to watch speaking on the podium in the U.N., and who might actually use English with a Glaswegian accent (Rowhani has three law degrees, including a doctorate from the Caledonian University of Glasgow).
So for Israel – business as usual, and Netanyahu can continue his intimidation campaigns. No reason to ready the gas masks, but no reason to get carried away with hopes of change either. What we should really focus on is a real yearning of the Iranian people for change. Iran may not be a democracy in the full sense of the word (neither are the U.S. and Israel for that matter), but the vote does express a popular call for reform and an end to the hawkish foreign policy resulting in international isolation and deteriorating economy led by Ahmadinejad. Israelis should keep their hopes up that these voices will prevail down the road and bring real revolution in Iran.