After the moderate and centrist Hassan Rowhani was elected to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s seventh president, a considerable amount of optimism was raised regarding Tehran’s nuclear program and Iranian-Israeli relations. Following Rowhani’s presidential victory, Iran’s foreign ministry promised to resume talks with world powers on its controversial nuclear program, declaring that they will create a new negotiating team after Rowhani is sworn into office on August 3rd.
The hopes of improving relations between Tehran and Tel Aviv were also raised as a result of the softer tone towards Israel that Rowhani campaigned under. In addition, the remarks by Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has been employing a softer tone towards Iran than Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, also raises hope on improved relations. Peres pointed out that the results of the Iranian elections reveal that an overwhelming majority of the Iranian people are dissatisfied and disapprove of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad’s ruling. In an interview with the Associated Press, Peres stated, "More than half of Iranians, in their own way, in my judgment, protested against an impossible leadership…..It is clearly a voice of the people and a voice that says, ‘We don't agree with this group of leaders.’”
‘Smile and build a bomb’
However, these hopes for a resolution to the long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear intentions and Iranian-Israeli relations appears to have already come to an end even before Rowhani assumed the presidency. This week, in an interview with CBS News, Netanyahu stated that, "He [Rowhani] is criticizing his predecessor for being a wolf in wolf's clothing. His strategy is to be a wolf in a sheep's clothing. Smile and build a bomb." Netanyahu also stated previously, "Let us not delude ourselves. The international community must not become caught up in wishful thinking and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program."
The softer tone that Rowhani advocated during his presidential campaign also appears to have come to an end; after hearing the Israeli Prime Minister’s remarks, Rowhani immediately responded – in an address to Iran-Iraq war veterans on Wednesday – "Who are the Zionists to threaten us?" Moreover, Rowhani called Israel a “miserable regional country” and also stated, referring to Israel and the United States, that "When some say that all options are on the table and when a miserable regional country says such things, it makes you laugh."
These recent development indicate that the geopolitical and geostrategic tensions between Iranian officials and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu have already intensified. Israeli leaders argue that Tehran is very close to nuclear capabilities and that unless the international community acts soon, they might miss the opportunity to stop the Ayatollahs from getting a nuclear bomb. Ratcheting up his threats in response to Rowhani’s statements, Netanyahu stated on CBS’s Face the Nation, “They're edging up to the red line. They haven't crossed it yet…. They're getting closer and closer to the bomb. And they have to be told in no uncertain terms that that will not be allowed to happen.”
Israeli leaders believe that if Tehran gets a nuclear bomb, Tel Aviv would be the first victim. This belief was intensified during Ahmadinejad’s era, after he stated that Israel should be wiped off of the map and denied the Holocaust. Israel has repeatedly referred to preemptive and unilateral military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities; for instance, Netanyahu explained in a statement, "Our clocks are ticking at a different pace. We're closer than the United States. We're more vulnerable. And therefore, we'll have to address this question of how to stop Iran, perhaps before the United States does." Meanwhile, as Iran is continuing its nuclear enrichment program, Israel remains the Middle East's sole but undeclared nuclear power.
When Rowhani takes office
The major question surrounds whether the already heightened tensions between Tehran and Tel Aviv might simmer down after Rowhani assumes the presidency on August 3. Speculation also surrounds whether there would be any change after Iran’s foreign ministry formed a new negotiating nuclear team, or whether Tel Aviv will go ahead and launch unilateral preemptive military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, as warned by Netanyahu.
Due to several reasons, it is very unlikely that any progress or amelioration between Tehran and Tel Aviv will transpire under Hassan Rowhani’s presidency. First of all, the gap between Tehran and Tel Aviv’s stance towards Iranian nuclear enrichment is too deep to bridge. On one hand, Israel is demanding that Tehran ought to completely halt its nuclear program in order for any political resolution to take place and for the assurance that military actions will be avoided. On the other hand, Rowhani has been clear about his position on Tehran’s nuclear program; in a press conference, the president-elect clearly expressed that “the era of [enrichment] suspension is gone.”
More fundamentally, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear policies are closely and directly guided by the Supreme Leader and his establishments, including the high generals of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and Etela’at (Iran’s intelligence). Although the president is able to set the regional and international tone, it is ultimately the Supreme Leader that has the final say on Iran’s nuclear program, The Supreme Leader has also been very clear about his stance towards Tehran’s nuclear program, having repeatedly expressed that obtaining nuclear capabilities is Iran’s inalienable right and that the country will not submit to external pressures.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be reached at Rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu or followed on Twitter: @majidrafizadeh