The UN building last week was the scene of the most unlikely “bromance”. Gossip fluttered through busy corridors as Hassan Rouhani, the newly elected President of Iran and US President Barack Obama smugly flirted from afar like sheepish teenage flames.
A last minute phone call from President Obama while Rouhani was on his way back to Iran was perhaps a step short of a Rom-com ending, but the sentiments were clearly there.
Rouhani’s talk of compromise on an issue that has long isolated his country, one of the last strongholds of the Axis of Evil, was received jubilantly in the White House to the horror of the dumfounded Jewish state.
He surprised many as he acknowledged the horrors of the Holocaust. Whilst this most meager of diplomatic niceties is unlikely to provoke universal adoration it characterizes Iran’s seemingly more reconciliatory manner. It may sweeten the bitter pill of a new Iran-US relationship, which Israel may have to swallow.
This astronomic change in tack left the world, most especially their Israeli counterparts bewildered. However Rouhani’s amicable approach towards the West demonstrated throughout his speech to the World Organisation put Netanyahu in a tricky position. Israel may have to watch painfully from a distance as the US-Iranian flirtation takes its course, purposefully ignorant of hawkish and disruptive Israeli concerns.
After years of pugnacious rhetoric towards their Persian neighbours the Israeli Government cannot simply embrace a country whose former President threatened to “wipe it off the map”. If there’s anything that can be said about Israeli Foreign Policy it is that they don’t let go of grudges very easily. Just ask every other state in the Middle East.
Netanyahu, turning up late for the party in New York finally had his chance to let his frustrations known. And he showered the UN’s deaf ears in stinging cynicism. This time without a red pen and a whiteboard, he derided Iran, describing Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. His green-eyed denial of Iran’s sudden willingness to rejoin the international community may not be unreasonable, but it was certainly contrarian.
Obviously the suggestion that Iran will upstage Israel on the US’ ‘best buds’ list is absurd, however the American President’s as yet unsuccessful outreach to previously uncooperative states such as Myanmar and for a short while Russia has been fundamental to his typically ‘revolutionary’ approach to global politics. To him, making a friend of an enemy may be worth more of his attention that pandering to a high maintenance appendage.
Contrary to the appearance of change in Iran with the election of Rouhani as President, real power has not changed hands at all. It is well known that Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, ultimately wields power in the Persian state. Rouhani, like his more erratic predecessor can only maneuver in between the rigid political guidelines his superior imposes. Therefore the sincerity of Iran’s liberal rhetoric is dubious.
Khomeini, having been in power since 1989, has directed national policy for decades. So after overseeing years of bellicose rejection of the West and more particularly Israel why would he allow such a change? Largely immune to public opinion and the opinions of anyone else in the country - apart from the stagnant and inanely supportive ‘Assembly of Experts’, (an elected body of conservative Islamic theologians) - this radical change in policy must have presumably come from him. Such a momentous U-turn without genuine regime change triggers justifiable skepticism.
Israeli’s seeing through the electoral façade that brought Rouhani ‘the compromiser’ to the Presidency, know that Iran has not been substantially altered. This friendly diplomacy then goes against the very defensive and jingoistic soul of the country; this breeds distrust in Israel even if it engenders hope elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu unless he harnesses the full and frankly terrifying power of pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington, will likely be left on the edge of the loop, a tedious and stubborn obstruction to diplomatic progress and an unprecedented victory for the Obama administration. The dogged vigilance and suspicion Netanyahu wants from the USA are not likely to hold unless Iran has another manic shift in behaviour.
Of course, the Israeli Government may have to bite the bullet and idly stand back with the rest of the world as Iran sets out its terms, but expecting Israel to do that is like expecting a piranha to become vegetarian. Counterintuitive would be an understatement.
Netanyahu, unlike the Supreme Leader of Iran is constrained by public opinion. Even in the miraculous circumstance that Netanyahu wanted to welcome Iran with open arms, his variably hard-line constituents would make sure he would be a spent political force. Similar to how in the US, American exceptionalism is vital to win elections, in a unique Jewish state surrounded by long time enemies; a fanatic devotion to the defense of the Zionist state is a basic condition of office.
Therefore if Iran does follow even slightly, the path towards a warming of its relations with the West, however bizarre that may seem, Israel will most likely be sidelined. That is unless it follows the prevailing, rather self-righteous zeitgeist to embrace a potentially reforming nemesis. But that would require an even more remarkable political turnaround that that of Iran.