Both Israel and Iran are in the middle of an election campaign. While Israelis will cast their votes in a few days, the Iranians will vote in five months’ time. However, both campaigns barely grapple with the bottom line that rivets the world, namely whether their outcome will increase or decrease the chances of a regional conflict between the two states — a conflict which may deeply affect international reality in 2013.
In Iran, the elections take place under the heavy shadow cast by the repression of the 2009 Green Revolution. Some reformist candidates from that period remain under house arrest, while others, who are at large, grapple with the question whether running in this campaign could legitimize the regime that has already proven it would not balk at rigging the results.
Israel, on the other hand, sees a strange election campaign, in which the only known factor for certain — or so it seems — is the end result. At times, it seems that the campaign addresses the social plight of the middle class, while at other times it swerves sharply toward regional affairs and the negotiations with the Palestinians. It’s unclear.
What is clear, however, is that shortly after the elections in Israel, which take place one day after President Barack Obama is sworn in, hectic talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program will begin. The military option, which Israel had shelved during the summer months, might make a dramatic comeback. If the Americans fail to reach a breakthrough in their talks with Tehran, Jerusalem will push hard for an international operation to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program. And if that pressure comes to naught, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might — as he has said in the past — have to make a “historic decision.” The time frame that is now being talked about is the spring of 2013. This is precisely the time when the Iranians are slated to go the ballot — in June. The regime of harsh sanctions has been constantly permeating the local political discourse. Therefore this conjuncture of domestic Iranian politics, a new-old administration in Washington and a right-wing government led by Netanyahu could be highly volatile.
For Israelis, this poses a two-fold challenge. On the one hand, a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu would find it hard to garner international support for an independent military action against Iran. In the context of the latter, Netanyahu is considered the immediate suspect. Furthermore, since he has abstained from making progress in the diplomatic arena, his counterparts in the West would be reluctant to support — even tacitly — an aggressive act against the Iranians.
Domestically, Netanyahu — as head of a right-wing government — would find it hard to form a consensus. In recent days, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has waged a public campaign against Benjamin Netanyahu, alleging that billions of shekels had been squandered on “delusional plans” that would have never been followed through — an explicit intimation at the practical preparations for an onslaught in Iran. Former Shin Bet [Israeli Internal Security Agency] director, Yuval Diskin, recently described the deliberations on Iran, which, he said, took place while cigars were being smoked and “chefs in toques blanches” were prepping food outside the conference room. This was a deadly assault on Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s ostensibly hedonistic character. Such assertions generally undermine Netanyahu’s domestic legitimacy to take action. Since it is doubtful that Ehud Barak will serve as Netanyahu’s next defense minister, the prime minister stands to lose an important mainstay in his ability to effectively explain to the world and the Israeli public a possible preemptive strike.
And that’s where the elections in Iran come into the picture. If international objection and local political skepticism were not enough, Netanyahu is about to lose one of his paramount strategic and public relations assets — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With his anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying and fundamentalist image (there are no homosexuals in Iran, he said on more than one occasion), the Iranian president embodies the West’s gravest concerns. His persona is so inextricably associated with Iran’s image and its nuclear development program that it is hard to recall that Iran used to have other presidents who also pursued the nuclear program but who did not constantly talk about eradicating the “Zionist entity” and did not hold Holocaust-denial conferences in Tehran.
With regard to developing the nuclear program, Iranian consensus spans from Khatami, to Rafsanjani to Ahmadinejad. It was Rafsanjani who once said that “it only takes one bomb to wipe off the Zionist project.” Yet Ahmadinejad gave the nuclear project a face, and a very ill-boding one. In any event, a new president in Iran will be perceived as a new beginning. Abstention from odious statements would give him some latitude. For Israel, such latitude will be a positive development, if its ultimate objective is to reach an arrangement that will neutralize the chances of a nuclear-armed Iran. By contrast, if Iran continues to bide time and stall, the departure of Ahmadinejad and the ascent of a new president could be a foreboding development: more feet-dragging on the road to a bomb and without Ahmadinejad as a strategic asset.
Saying that Israelis might miss Ahmadinejad is perhaps a hyperbole, but a senior Israeli official has said: “If you already have an Iranian president who develops nuclear weapons, it’s better to have an outspoken one like Ahmadinejad rather than letting someone else develop the bomb under the guise of so-called moderate, peace-seeking statements.”
Among other things, the Israeli response should be speeding up the timetable. A new Iranian president might get 100 days of grace. For Jerusalem, it might be 100 days too many. Israel will want to see an effective diplomatic plan to abolish Iran’s nuclear program well before the Iranians cast their votes in June. Should this attempt fail, the military option just might be put back on the table, well before the ballot booths in Tehran open.
Nadav Eyal is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He directs Chanel 10's foreign news desk and was formerly a political reporter and European correspondent for Maariv daily. Eyal was named one of the hundred most influential people in the media for 2011 by the Israeli business magazine Globes. He holds an LLB degree from the Law Faculty at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a master's degree in global politics from the London School of Economics.