Few people in Israel expected a positive turnaround in Iran, but the election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of the Islamic Republic has raised eyebrows among even the more pessimistic pundits. Even before giving his first media conference, the fundamentalist mayor of Tehran made clear there would be no new tack toward Israel.
“I will strive to expand relations with everyone, with the exception of Israel,” he told the Saudi newspaper Okaz on Sunday.
That was no surprise in itself, as political leaders in Iran must parrot the policies of the religious clerics.
But under the outgoing president, the reform-minded Mohammed Khatami, there had been an internal domestic tension that benefited Israel. Khatami even hinted that Tehran could soften its stance on the “Zionist enemy” in the event of a satisfactory Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Ahmadinejad is no moderate. A reserve officer in the Basij Militia, which suppresses any signs of Western modernity, he enjoyed a sweeping victory in the weekend election, leading Israeli experts to reassess the strength of the reform movement in Iran.
“The surprise in itself is a very troublesome ‘mishap,’ as Iran is Israel’s primary strategic threat, and a situation in which the election of a certain president comes as a surprise to Israel and the West cannot be tolerated,” wrote Alex Fishman, the defense correspondent for Yediot Achronot.
Fishman predicted increased Iranian efforts to sabotage the recent Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, through Tehran’s Shi’ite proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the terrorist cells Iran sponsors in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Even Israeli Arabs are in Iran’s sights, Fishman said.
“The Iranian efforts to penetrate radical groups among Israel’s Arabs will be deepened, as will the espionage and subversion within Israel,” he wrote.
But that threat pales in comparison to Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel believes will be capable of producing weapons within months. According to Meir Litvak, an Iran expert at Tel Aviv University, Ahmadinejad has no real control over the program, as it is entirely in the clerics’ hands. “They will decide on the continued development of nuclear weapons,” Litvak said.
But the president-elect is not expected even to exert rhetorical pressure to rein in the program. He has already declared the pursuit of nuclear capability — he claimed it was for peaceful purposes — a national prerogative. And he said Iran had “no significant need” for relations with the United States, a sure sign that he will not shy from a future fight to defend his country’s nuclear ambitions.
Israel, which has long tried to keep relatively quiet in international efforts to prevent Iran getting the bomb, spoke out Sunday.
“Faced with the Iranian nuclear threat, the international community must, more than before, formulate a unified and stern policy toward Iran,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Sunday. “We must ensure that modern Western countries do not become hostage to Iranian radicalism.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.