x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tel Aviv changes tone on Iran election

Just after the bitterly disputed presidential vote in Iran on June 12, Israel appeared pleased at the re-election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, centre, has spoken of peace with a new regime in Iran.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, centre, has spoken of peace with a new regime in Iran.

TEL AVIV // Just after the bitterly disputed presidential vote in Iran on June 12, Israel appeared pleased at the re-election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The media reported widely about satisfaction among members of the top political and military echelon that the win by Mr Ahmadinejad, who has branded the Holocaust a "great deception" and has called for Israel to be destroyed, would facilitate Israel's bid to rally western opposition against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Shortly after the ballot, an Israeli commentator warned that a victory by Mr Ahmadinejad's main pro-reform rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, would have pasted "an attractive mask on the face of Iran's nuclear ambitions". Furthermore, many of the country's intelligence experts had initially played down the potential of the post-election riots, confidently predicting they would only last a few days, with one labelling them a mere "hiccup".

But this week, Israel appeared to shift its stance on prospects for the unrest in Iran, cheering on the demonstrators to push for regime change in the country whose nuclear programme it views as the biggest threat to its existence. In interviews with US and German media, Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Israeli prime minister, praised the "incredible acts of courage" by the protesters and said "peaceful relations" could exist between Israel and Iran if a new leadership takes power in Tehran. Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, told visiting Jewish fundraisers that young Iranians should "raise their voice of freedom", and added: "I really don't know what will disappear first, their enriched uranium, or their poor government. Hopefully, the poor government will disappear."

Some analysts attributed the change in tone to a re-evaluation by the Israeli government that the turmoil could also serve its interest in mobilising international opposition against Iran. Michael Warschawski, a founder of the Alternative Information Centre, a Palestinian-Israeli advocacy group in Jerusalem, said: "The victory of Ahmadinejad was a good pretext for Israeli leaders to continue to focus American attention against Iran so that the US will not push Israel to move forward on the Palestinian issue. On the other hand, anything that could destabilise Iran and show the regime's unpopularity is also positive for Israel."

Indeed, Iran has been a primary focus for Israel's right-wing government since it came into office in late March. Mr Netanyahu has intensively lobbied Barack Obama, the US president, to set a time limit for his effort at dialogue with Iran and take more aggressive steps against its nuclear plans. Mr Netanyahu has also suggested that Israel may resort to military action against the nuclear installations of Iran should the dialogue prove fruitless.

But the Israeli premier's concern about Iran has also attracted criticism that he is attempting to divert international attention away from his reluctance to reach an agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state - an accord Mr Obama is vigorously trying to advance. In the meantime, the continuing demonstrations in Iran appear to have thrown Israel's intelligence community into disarray, prompting some prominent officials to make seemingly rash assessments and contradict each other in predicting the outcome of events in their country's archenemy.

Meir Dagan, the head of Israel's Mossad foreign intelligence agency, drew criticism after playing down the unrest four days after the election. He predicted the protests will be short-lasting and limited in scope, reckoning that they will not spur a major change and stating that the voting fraud "did not stray from the usual in other countries". On Sunday, Ephraim Halevy, who served as Mossad's chief in the late 1990s, called the demonstrations nothing short of a "revolution". He also challenged Mr Dagan's statement that it would make little difference if Mr Ahmadinejad was replaced by Mr Mousavi, whom the current Mossad chief blamed for starting the nuclear programme while serving as Iran's prime minister in the 1980s. "No one could predict what Mousavi would do - Mousavi of 2009 is not the Mousavi of 1981-1982," Mr Halevy said.

The upheaval in Iran is also leaving its mark on regular Israelis used to viewing Iranians mainly as hostile neighbours. Many have been captivated by images of the bloody confrontations plastered on the front pages of the country's newspapers and broadcast on television news programs. Activists in Israel's small community of Iranian-born Jews and their descendants have even spread word in cyberspace of a rally planned for today near Tel Aviv to show solidarity with the Iranian protesters.

"The conception is breaking that Iran is one voice that wants to destroy Israel," said Neve Gordon, a political science professor at Israel's Ben-Gurion University. "It's no longer 'Iran equals Ahmadinejad.' At one point you have to accept this mass movement that is fighting for a more democratic, secular Iran." vbekker@thenational.ae