Will pro-Israel groups miss Ahmadinejad?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seen here addressing the Durban Review Conference in Geneva on April 20, 2009, is up for re-election June 12. (Michael J. Jordan)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seen here addressing the Durban Review Conference in Geneva on April 20, 2009, is up for re-election June 12. (Michael J. Jordan)

NEWS ANALYSIS

WASHINGTON (JTA) — For several years Israel and pro-Israel groups have been holding up Iran’s president as a would-be Adolf Hitler. But with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad uncertain to win his reelection bid June 12, the question arises of whether they would be worse off if they didn’t have the Holocaust-denying leader to kick around anymore.

Ahmadinejad’s main challenger is Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a one-time hard-liner who was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s who since has evolved into a western-looking moderate.

Mousavi, whose chances in the June 12 election have been buoyed by a faltering economy, seems to be saying the right things. Denying the Holocaust, he has argued, is counterproductive and dishonors the Jewish dead. He also wants to negotiate peaceful relations with the United States, although not at the expense of Iran’s nuclear program.

The problem from the perspective of some pro-Israel groups is that saying the right things is meaningless so long as Iran remains committed to acquiring game-changing nuclear weapons capability. More than that, they worry, it could be dangerous if the election of a relative moderate like Mousavi undercuts efforts by Israel to make the case that dealing with Iran’s nuclear program is urgent. Any amount of time the West gives a new president Mousavi to consolidate his moderation in the Iranian establishment, according to this thinking, is time Iran will use to develop the bomb — something that Israel believes could happen within a year.

"Cynics would say: Maybe we’re better with Ahmadinejad, rather than someone who is a master of PR who still believes Israel should be wiped from the map," said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Nonetheless, Foxman said, he’d rather see Ahmadinejad and his poisonous rhetoric gone. "Anyone would be better than Ahmadinejad," he said.

Still, the message flooding inboxes in recent weeks — from groups like the ADL, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as well as the Israeli Foreign Ministry — is that whoever wins the election, the strings remain in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has, according to a report in Ha’aretz, ordered an intensification of protests and information briefings ahead of Iran’s elections, "to show the world that Iran is not a Western democracy," according to a ministry official not named by the newspaper.

One recommended tactic is to organize mock stonings and hangings — the execution methods Iran uses to punish gays and adulterers.

"All the candidates are selected and approved by the Mullah-run Guardian Council, which approves a few and spikes hundreds, so it’s more like an ‘election’ in the old USSR than anything else," said Josh Block, AIPAC’s spokesman. "As the spokesman for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Reuters, it doesn’t matter who wins the elections when it comes to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability and its ties to the U.S."

Block referred to a June 1 Reuters interview with Mehdi Kalhor. "No one but the leader can decide about any move to renew ties with America and Iran’s nuclear work," Kalhor said in the interview. "Such issues cannot be traded by any president."

Kalhor noted that it was during the presidency of the previous "moderate," Mohammed Khatami, that Iran removed U.N. inspectors’ seals at a nuclear plant and resumed uranium enrichment. He also categorically rejected "freeze for freeze," a deal under consideration by the Obama administration under which the West would freeze sanctions for six weeks while Iran freezes enrichment at current levels.

If it is true that Khameini is in control, it begs the question of why pro-Israel groups and Israel have made Ahmadinejad a boogey-man over the years.

Western diplomats and some Iran scholars say that while it is true that the Ayatollah is the final address for decision-making, he nonetheless would have to heed a moderate tilt by the electorate. The president, moreover, is not entirely powerless and has the influence to set the tone.

"Although it is conventional wisdom to dismiss the presidency as relatively unimportant and totally subservient to the Leader, that grossly underestimates the influence that the Iranian president is able to exert, especially on foreign policy," Gary Sick, an Iran expert now at Columbia University, wrote on his blog. "In the three presidential elections in Iran since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Iran has undergone a series of very important changes that were attributable almost exclusively to the incumbent president."

Among these, he listed Mohammed Hashemi Rafsanjani’s outreach to the Arab world after the Iran-Iraq war ended.

U.S. diplomats already are frustrated with Iran’s failure to respond to Obama’s message of outreach in March. Instead of a substantive offer in return, Ahmadinehad has intensified his anti-Israel rhetoric and Iran seems more determined than ever to advance its nuclear prospects.

Some supporters of diplomatic outreach hope a new Iranian president would produce a more constructive Iranian response to U.S. overtures. But the fear in many corners of the pro-Israel community is that a change in president simply would mask the true nature of the Iranian regime — and buy it more time.

"It’s change, but within a narrow parameter," Foxman said. "A change based on a candidate approved by those who approve Ahmadinejad may result in a change in tactics and PR, but it doesn’t change the essence of a fundamentalist regime."

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