Despite Netanyahu's UN Speech, Iran and Israel Can Still Be Frenemies


In the last week, a flurry of rhetoric came from both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani struck a conciliatory note at the UN and made a historic phone call to President Obama. On Tuesday, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the UN General Assembly and rebuked Rouhani. He followed this up by saying that Iran was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Yesterday, Rouhani responded in kind, saying that Israel was upset that “Iran grows more powerful day by day.”

The exchange of rhetoric between these two leaders offers a window into the domestic politics that both leaders must contend with if a normalization of relations between Israel and Iran is to happen. Netanyahu’s rhetoric reflects Israeli fears that Rouhani is no more than a smokescreen for Iran’s nuclear program. By contrast, Rouhani is attempting to push Iran out of a hard-line ideological position towards pragmatism. In this effort, he is very vulnerable to attacks from hardliners in Iran. While Rouhani walks this treacherous path, it would be wise for Netanyahu to allay domestic political fears and cautiously engage with him. Though this is a major political risk, it could help dissipate one of the most dangerous threats facing his nation.

The animosity between Israel and Iran has a long history. Since the inception of the Islamic Republic, Iranian leaders have vociferously denied the legitimacy of Israel and attempted to undermine it. Unlike other enemies of Israel, this position was not decided by political convenience. Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the current theocratic government, firmly believed that Zionism was a Western imperialist project fracturing the Muslim world and that it was Iran’s responsibility to eliminate it. He subverted Israel through covert actions and by becoming the primary patron of Hezbollah. Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, continued this project by increasing Iran’s support to both Hezbollah and Hamas.

In more recent years, Tehran further stoked tensions through its nuclear program. Restarting the initiative begun by the shah, the Islamic Republic sought to recapture its power status in the Middle East through the development of nuclear weapons. Ignoring the costly sanctions placed on it by the global community, it steadfastly refused to compromise the program. Concurrent to this, Iran also elected one of the most hardline presidents in its history, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who famously denied the existence of the Holocaust.

With such a sordid history, it is not surprising the Israelis are skeptical of the recent move by Rouhani to come to a settlement on nuclear weapons. A recent poll showed that 78% of Israelis do not believe that Rouhani is genuine; he is only stalling for time, so that Iran can increase its uranium enrichment efforts. For his part, Netanyahu is not willing to move counter to the Israeli popular consensus. Not only it is anathema to his personal politics, it is politically foolish.

With the same historical view in mind, the huge significance of Rouhani’s steps also becomes apparent. Rouhani is a part of the pragmatist wing of the Iranian elite that places national interests over ideological concerns. This faction has seldom had the opportunity to assert its agenda because of the powerful hardline element in Iran, which includes the Revolutionary Guard. Recently, however, the crushing weight of economic sanctions mounted to the point that Ayatollah Khamenei called for “heroic flexibility” with the West and has given his tentative support to the new president’s goals.  

While Rouhani has enjoyed a great deal of diplomatic success, he occupies a very tenuous political position. Hardline protesters threw eggs and shoes at him when he returned to Iran this week. More importantly, the head of the Revolutionary Guard publicly criticized him for talking with Obama. Though Rouhani still enjoys the backing of the supreme leader, he remains highly vulnerable to these types of political attacks. In this way, his most recent speech that stated Israel was afraid of Iran’s growing strength was directed more at a domestic audience than back at Netanyahu. In the face of Netanyahu’s criticisms, he had to defend himself against the appearance of weakness.

Despite this hiccup, there is still great hope for Rouhani to continue his efforts, but only if his conciliatory steps are reciprocated. Some level of Israeli cooperation is necessary to keep Rouhani from being politically flanked from the Iranian right. If this is not done, Rouhani will likely share the same fate of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, whose attempts at reform and outreach ceased after they were stonewalled by the George W. Bush Administration.

Keeping in mind many acts of aggression made by Iran in the past, Netanyahu and Israeli policymakers should realize that this is a rare moment for a possible nuclear settlement. Instead of using highly inflammatory rhetoric that plays to ingrained Israeli sentiments, it would be prudent for Netanyahu to cautiously engage with the pragmatic Rouhani.

As was recently noted by Akbar Ganji in Foreign Affairs, a “frenemies” status is perhaps the best possible outcome of any Iran-Israeli negotiations. While they may be able to come to a diplomatic settlement, the countries will remain ideological enemies committed to undermining each other. This limitation should not dissuade either nation from making further steps. As the unsuccessful presidency of Khatami showed, windows of opportunity with Iran are rare and should not be squandered. Rebuffing Rouhani will give credence to his hardline opponents, decimate the pragmatic political coalition, and perpetuate the dangerous levels of tension between the two countries.