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Netanyahu Needs New Iran Strategy

Israel should recognize the opportunity presented by the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in Jerusalem June 17, 2013.  Iran's election has exposed popular discontent with the Tehran government but was unlikely to bring about any change in Iranian nuclear policy, Netanyahu told Reuters on Monday.  REUTERS/Darren Whiteside (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS HEADSHOT) - RTX10R1H

As of Aug. 3, Iran is going to have a new president, Hassan Rouhani. When it comes to foreign policy, Rouhani can best be described as the anti-Ahmadinejad. A new president in Iran calls for a new approach from Israel toward Iran.

With Rouhani in office, Iran is going to sound a lot more diplomatic and moderate. Rouhani is not a known Holocaust denier like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Its also quite likely that he is going to tone down the anti-Israel rhetoric for which Ahmadinejad is famous. In fact, in his first press conference, Rouhani went against years of protocol by referring to Israel by its proper name instead of “the Zionist entity,” a term which the majority of politicians in the Iranian regime have been using.

This means Israel has to follow suit by moderating its tone. Continuing with the status quo, meaning relying almost entirely on military threats against Iran’s nuclear installations, could now backfire. With a moderate-sounding president in Iran, the existing status quo could mean that Israel could end up looking like a warmonger and the Iranian government the moderate side.

To avoid such a scenario, the first thing the government of Israel should do is be more supportive of the diplomatic process currently being undertaken by the UN Security Council with Iran.

Instead of downplaying the recent elections, Israel’s prime minister should recognize that Iran’s supreme leader could have manipulated the elections, but he didn’t. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to recognize why: The Iranian regime is facing serious economic problems due to mismanagement at home as well as sanctions. Furthermore, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's nuclear policies are becoming less economically workable everyday.

By allowing Rouhani, also known as the "diplomat sheikh," to be genuinely elected from among the list of regime-approved candidates, Khamenei could well be sending a strong signal that he wants to explore the option of reaching a deal with the West. Although there is also ample room for skepticism, just dismissing Rowhani and saying Iran’s “feet should be held to fire” is the wrong strategy. Rouhani could open the doors of diplomacy wider than ever before, something which would be to the benefit of all, including Israel. Although Khamenei is in charge of the nuclear program, sanctions are powerful leverage which Rouhani can and will most probably use to get the supreme leader to change his nuclear stance.

Therefore, he should be given a chance. One way of doing so is to ensure that if he starts showing the intention and ability to change Iran's nuclear stance, no new sanctions are imposed.

The Israeli government should also drop its inaccurate description of the Iranian regime as "messianic." Ahmadinejad was the only "messianic" in the upper echelons of power in Iran (and a weak one at that, with no control over the nuclear program) and he is now on his way out. Neither Rouhani nor Khamenei are messianic.

The government of Israel should also support UN efforts through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to evaluate and ensure that Iran's nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes and does not have a military dimension, an issue the IAEA is still unsure about. While it is understandable that Netanyahu quotes UN resolutions against Iran, he should also note that he himself is making a mockery of the UN and delegitimizing it by defying it over the issue of settlements. The Iranian nuclear program and the settlements are different issues, but the UN is involved with both.

Endorsing the new version of the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative (API), which most Israelis support, is another strategy Netanyahu should pursue. Such an initiative will isolate and weaken Iran's hard-liners and their supporters at home and abroad. Missing this opportunity could hand Iran a victory, as Rouhani has stated that he will pursue a better relationship with the Saudis. Either Israel gets close to Saudi Arabia, or Iran will. Ignoring the API, as Netanyahu is currently doing, could end up helping Iran pursue rapprochement with Riyadh.

Rouhani's election does not mean that Israel does not have a valid case against the Iranian regime’s nuclear program, nor does it mean that Rouhani should receive a blank check from the West and Israel. What it does mean is that there has been a change in Iran. Within the confines that the regime has allowed and provided with its own elections, the people of Iran have spoken, and the supreme leader has had to listen because his current nuclear policies are not being supported by majority of Iranians.

Saeed Jalili, the man who represented Khamenei's nuclear policies, only received 11.74% of the valid vote. In other words, neither Khamenei 's policies nor international sanctions have rallied the people behind his current nuclear policies. In fact, Rouhani's win shows the opposite.

There is also deep division at the very top. As the election debates showed, Khamenei's narrative does not continue "to dominate the discourse within Iran’s political elite and guide its decision-making,” as the recent report by the National Iranian American Council suggested. What we saw in the election debates showed that Khamenei's narrative is being challenged at the very top and is not the dominant narrative. We saw how Khamenei's own foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, challenged Khamenei's narrative, represented by the supreme leader's chief nuclear negotiator, Jalili, in the debate. And the narrative Velayati represented was closer to that of Rouhani, who won. 

Iran has the right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Israel has the right to ensure that a regime which has called for its destruction is not and will not use nuclear technology to make weapons.

As an Iranian-Israeli living in Israel, I straddle both worlds. I have no illusions about the Islamic Republic and agree that we all need to be vigilant, but opportunities should be seized, or at least probed. Rouhani could be the best opportunity we have had in the last eight years to find a compromise. Israel not only needs a new Iran strategy, which means a change in narrative. It also means that if Rouhani does show the ability to bring change, he should receive quiet backing from Israel and its friends in Washington.

Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst. He teaches contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. On Twitter: @meirja

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