Rouhani's outlook riles Israeli hardliners
By Shahir Shahid Saless
Against all odds, moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani won Iranian presidential elections on June 14, after campaigning for "peace and reconciliation" and "constructive interaction with the world".
Jubilant Iranians took to the streets in large and small cities celebrating his victory. The Iranian people believes it ends eight years of hardliners' rule, and conveys to the world their desire to end an era of confrontation. Many leaders throughout the world welcomed the message, but its unlikely that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu did.
Four days after Rouhani's election, Netanyahu appeared
unimpressed by the developments in Iran, employing his now-familiar ominous language, "We cannot accept anything less than the total cessation of all enrichment of nuclear materials at all levels, removal from Iran of all enriched nuclear material, closure of Iran's illicit nuclear facilities ... Until Iran meets these demands, pressure must be stepped up and [the] Iranian nuclear program must be stopped. Period."
In the last eight years, former president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, by adopting confrontational policies, created a unique opportunity for hardliners in Israel - like Netanyahu - to unite the world against Iran. They have sought to isolate the country and impose ever-increasing sanctions based on the pre-text of Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
Now, Netanyahu fears that the emergence of a moderate president will weaken the world's resolve. Shortly after the announcement of Rouhani's victory, he warned the West by saying, "We do not delude ourselves. The international community must not cling to wishful thinking, give in to temptation and ease the pressure on Iran."
If Netanyahu fears the dissolution of a galvanized world view against Iran's nuclear program, his concern may be justified. Rouhani's constructive and rational approach may indeed end the tit-for-tat between Iran and the West that has persisted during the last eight years, even potentially breaching the impasse over Iran's nuclear issue.
Rouhani's record illustrates that he is a pragmatic, rational politician, in words and in practice. During Mohammad Khatami's presidency. He served as the Secretary of Iran's National Security Council and as Iran's top nuclear negotiator with the three European powers, ie the UK, France, and Germany. He played a significant role in preventing Iran's nuclear dossier from being referred to the United Nations by the International Atomic Energy Agency for perceived violations that would have resulted in the imposition of sanctions against his country, both unilaterally and internationally.
In a recent interview, Jack Straw, the former UK foreign minister who headed the British envoy in nuclear talks with Iran, said, "When Dr Rouhani was across the table it was pretty clear he had authority ... He was always very courteous, clearly determined to represent the interest of both the Iranian people and the Islamic Republic. But also just as we were representing our own interests, he did that pragmatically."
Rouhani's rationale when dealing with Iran's nuclear issue is simple: Iran has to gain the West's trust. The way to do it is through maximizing transparency of Iran's nuclear activities. But transparency has nothing to do with suspension.
Four months ago, a Gallup poll asked the Iranian people, "Given the scale of the sanctions against Iran, do you think Iran should continue to develop its nuclear power capabilities, or not?" Almost two-thirds of respondents, 63% said, "Yes." Only 17% said, "No." And 19% said they did not know or refused to answer. Given the pressure resulted from draconian sanctions, why does such a majority of the Iranians still advocate the advancement of nuclear capabilities?
In Iranian culture, pride plays a deep-rooted role in politics. This sentiment is rooted in their enduring civilization and cultural heritage. Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's former foreign minister rightfully said that, "No government [in Iran] can relinquish an issue that has gained it national pride." Hence, anyone who surrenders the nuclear project would be vulnerable to charges of selling out Iran's dignity.
Netanyahu has been warning the world of Iran's "imminent" nuclear threat for more than 20 years. In 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu, then a parliamentarian, warned that Iran was three to five years away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon. He implored that the threat should be, "uprooted by an international front headed by the US". Twenty years later, Netanyahu still calls for action against Tehran, "before it is too late". He claims that Tehran is "running out the clock".
It is unfortunate that many members of the US Congress have mirrored Netanyahu's dismissal of a fresh tone from Iran's new president, rendering the potential for any expiation by the new president as ineffectual. After a June 18 hearing before the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, the chair of the subcommittee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was asked if she was convinced by the experts' advice to give Rouhani some time to change Iran's foreign policy and she replied, "Not at all. We need to continue our sanctions policy and help our allies to see the light that a nuclear Iran will destroy the United States and will destroy Israel."
Apparently, the rationale behind US sanctions is to either force Iran's government to surrender its nuclear program or provoke a revolution among its people. But this rationale is flawed. As previously stated, Iran's nuclear program represents such a vast national pride that halting it would most likely inflict irreparable damage on any government or authority who concedes to it.
And American policy-makers incorrectly believe that Iranian citizens would blame their own government for sanctions. According to a Gallop poll, "Iranians are almost five times as likely to blame the United States for sanctions as they are to blame their own government. Even fewer blame Europe or the United Nations, though both are instrumental in the crippling economic sanctions."
It is despairing to hear from a congressional staffer that there is a consensus in the congress to impose even more sanctions on Iran because this position reaps a significant payoff by satisfying lobbying groups. And, that which lobbying group has the most influence in the Congress when dealing with Iran is an open secret.
"Tragedy" best describes a situation in which the most powerful country in the world may be persuaded by lobbying groups' influence and where the personal interests of its legislators significantly impact, if not determine, its foreign policy.
However, President Obama appears less prone to this influence and in his final term, is naturally less threatened by the interest groups. He may delay signing off on new sanctions, allowing Rouhani, himself, to direct the dispute over Iran's nuclear program toward a rational, win-win channel for Iran and the West. Rouhani says, "If Americans show honesty and are ready to solve the problems between the two countries, a win-win game is possible."
Shahir ShahidSaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist, writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He lives in Canada. Email him at email@example.com
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