At a rally in support of the Palestinians, held in Tehran on the occasion of “Global Jerusalem Day” on August 2, 2013, then-recently elected President of Iran Hassan Rouhani declared that the occupation of Palestine and Jerusalem was “an old wound on the body of the Islamic world.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to respond to the new Iranian president’s remarks, saying that “Rouhani’s true face has been exposed earlier than expected… These remarks should awaken the world from the illusion that has taken hold on some since the elections in Iran.” Speaking to the UN General Assembly two months later, Netanyahu addressed the new president, saying, “Rouhani doesn’t sound like [his hardline predecessor Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, but when it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the only difference between them is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing; Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Rouhani’s surprising and sweeping victory in the 2013 election marked an important turning point in Iranian politics. As one of the founders of the Iranian regime who had served in many senior roles, including some sensitive security posts, Rouhani had been considered a pragmatic conservative by observers at home and abroad. In his public statements he took a different approach from his predecessor to both domestic and foreign affairs, even expressing some criticism of Iran’s conduct in nuclear negotiations with the West. The new president’s attitude toward Israel and the Jews would also change shortly after his election, despite the statement on Global Jerusalem Day, as he adopted more moderate rhetoric and seemed to be less obsessed with the Israeli issue than his predecessor had been.
Nevertheless, Israeli officials, and especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, vehemently rejected the possibility of real change in Iran after Rouhani’s election for two main reasons. First, that an Iranian president has only limited scope to break with the Islamic Republic’s core ideological principles or to effect a significant change in its policies – this is the because of the structure of the Iranian establishment, including an electoral process that does not allow for free and fair elections as well as the imbalance of power between the president and the supreme leader. Second, that an Iranian president is constrained in their ability to deviate from the regime’s official line on the key issues that affect Israel, including Iran’s nuclear and long-range missile programs as well as its malign regional activity. In the wake of the regional upheaval over the past decade, including Rouhani’s tenure over the last eight years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have significantly increased their involvement throughout the Middle East as well as their power to shape the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, especially in the near abroad.
Iran’s hostility toward Israel remains one of the most consistent and uncompromising elements of the official policy of the Islamic Republic. Senior Iranian officials, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, continue to express a hardline anti-Israel stance that openly calls for Israel’s destruction. There is almost complete consensus on this issue on the part of the main political factions in Iran. Even reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who expressed a more pragmatic and moderate line in Iran’s attitude toward Israel and stressed in the 1990s that Iran had no interest in interfering in the peace process between Israel and its neighbors and should focus instead on its domestic concerns, spoke strongly of the need to return all Palestinian refugees to Israel and hold a referendum among the original inhabitants of Palestine in order to determine its fate. This understanding of “original inhabitants” excludes most of Israel’s Jewish residents and thus the proposal is tantamount to the elimination of Israel as a Jewish Zionist state. Of course, Iran’s hostility to Israel is not confined to statements alone. Under all presidents, whether hardliners or pragmatists, Iran has continued its efforts to encourage, promote, and assist terrorist and military activities against Israel by Palestinian organizations and by Hezbollah, working to entrench itself either directly or through its proxies along Israel’s borders.
Regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Rouhani adopted a more pragmatic approach than his predecessor. Contrary to the aggressive line presented by Ahmadinejad, Rouhani sought to move toward the goal of becoming a nuclear threshold state gradually and while minimizing the economic and political costs to Iran. Although secret talks between Iran and the United States began during President Ahmadinejad’s tenure, with approval from the supreme leader, there is no doubt that Rouhani’s election enabled the negotiations that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in July 2015.
The Iran nuclear deal, however, triggered fierce criticism from the Israeli government and was characterized by Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “historic mistake.” Israel has spearheaded the efforts to delay Iran’s nuclear program, oppose the JCPOA, and encourage President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy. In recent weeks Netanyahu has apparently sought to complicate and thwart the indirect talks between the United States and Iran over a reciprocal return to full compliance with the JCPOA by continuing Israeli activities against Iran’s nuclear sites and emphasizing that Israel would not be bound by a nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.
In addition to its political efforts, Israel is continuing covert activities to delay Iran’s nuclear progress and possibly also the diplomatic efforts. In this context, the election of a hardline president in the upcoming election might actually be in line with Israel’s interests (as perceived by Netanyahu). The election of a conservative president would not necessarily prevent a return to the nuclear deal, which depends largely on the Iranian supreme leader’s decision. It might, however, pose further difficulties in advancing the negotiations if there is no deal before the Iranian elections; and it might frustrate the possibility of a return to the JCPOA, which is viewed by Israel as a worst-case scenario because it believes that the deal would pave the way for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons when the sunset clauses expire. In addition, the election of a hardline president would complicate any rapprochement at the regional level, especially in light of the IRGC’s regional aspirations.
On the other hand, Israel likely feels that the election of a pragmatic president would present a significant challenge because a president who heralds the possibility (or at least the appearance) of improvement in Iran’s behavior might encourage a more positive international attitude towards Iran (i.e., potentially less sanctions and isolation, more economic exchanges, etc.). There is no doubt that a hardline president who uses belligerent rhetoric, openly calls for the destruction of Israel, and adopts hawkish positions would serve Israeli efforts to mobilize the international community against the Islamic Republic.
Iran and Israel are currently engaged in a complex and multi-dimensional campaign. While hostility towards Israel continues to be an important component of Iran’s official policy, it seems that Israel, and especially under its current prime minister, has a fundamental interest in maintaining friction with Iran both because it genuinely considers Iran a potentially existential threat due to the specific nature of its political regime and because friction serves some personal political interests. It seems that Netanyahu has exploited the continued confrontation between Iran and Israel to a certain degree in order to distract the Israeli public from his political and judicial problems and to present himself as the only Israeli leader capable of successfully dealing with the Iranian threat.
Yet even if Netanyahu were to leave office, it is doubtful that his successor would adopt a fundamentally different approach towards Iran. On the Iranian issue, there are no tangible differences between politicians in mainstream Israeli politics. Both Israel’s military campaign against Iran’s entrenchment’s efforts in Syria and its covert activities against Iran’s nuclear program are supported by most Israeli politicians across the political spectrum. Another prime minister might adopt slightly different rhetoric towards Iran, downplay belligerent statements against it, and perhaps even deprioritize the Iranian issue. However, the Israeli view of Iran as a strategic threat is not expected to change, nor will Israel’s determination to continue its efforts against Iran’s nuclear program, missile capabilities, and regional activities.
If a more pragmatic president is elected in Iran, Israel will probably claim that strategic decisions in Iran are made by Khamenei and thus there will be no change in its policies. If a hardline president is elected, Israel will probably argue that the entire Iranian leadership has fallen under the control of radicals and that the international community should mobilize against Iran more than ever before. Be that as it may, as long as the two countries consider their ongoing confrontation a zero-sum game – with Iran unwilling to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and Israel reluctant to acknowledge Iran’s vital interests – then the Iran-Israel conflict is likely to continue regardless of the political leanings of Iran’s next president.
Dr Raz Zimmt is an Iran specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). He is also a veteran Iran-watcher in the Israeli Defense Forces.
On Twitter: @RZimmt
Our blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate on the Iranian presidential elections on June 18. To this end, it highlights aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote as well as fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system. We also consider the perspectives of selected regional actors.