Willful Dissonance


Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is being described as a moderate in the American press. Compared to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, maybe he is. After all, while Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust and openly and repeatedly called for doing away with Israel, so far Rouhani, appearing at an Al Quds Day event in Iran on Friday where marchers shout “Death to Israel,” “only” referred to the Jewish state as “a sore that has been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years.”

In fact, much was made over the translation of his remarks, which were downgraded from saying the “sore” must be removed.

This is supposed to ease our concerns about an Iran still actively building a nuclear arsenal?

The administration in Washington is accentuating the positive. It chose not to speak out about the reference to Israel, and called Rouhani’s election “an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.”

Some are optimistic about new talks over the nuclear issue now that Iran has elected a reformist candidate who has called for improved relations with the West. Others, most notably Benjamin Netanyahu, have voiced skepticism about any real change happening in Iran’s foreign policy.

“The president of Iran has been replaced,” the prime minister said at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, “but the goal of the regime has not been replaced, it remains as it was.” He charged that Iran intends to develop “nuclear weapons in order to destroy the State of Israel” and must be stopped.

There are those who argue that Rouhani’s election, and the diplomatic honeymoon he is enjoying, leading to another round of negotiations, works against Israel’s push to act against Iran before it completes its nuclear efforts. More talks, critics say, means more time for Iran. And it is still Iran’s supreme leader, the virulently anti-Western Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who calls the shots, they point out.

This latest episode underscores the differences in how the United States and Israel are dealing with the Iran threat. While they both remain steadfast in their insistence that Iran cannot have nuclear arms, Washington appears inclined to give Rouhani the benefit of the doubt and to talk some more. Netanyahu, though, described the new leader as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and fears the U.S. is being strung along. This sets up a dangerous dilemma for Israel —between taking military action against Iran, and perhaps losing U.S. support, or waiting out the talks at the risk of giving Iran time to complete its nuclear project.

In the meantime, Washington’s decision to avoid a diplomatic confrontation now with Iran is consistent with its steering clear of charged situations that would force its hand on delicate foreign policy issues. It has avoided calling the military takeover of Egypt a “coup,” so as not to be forced, legally, into cutting U.S. aid to the country. And as the trial opened this week of Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, accused of killing 13 people at a Fort Hood, Texas, army base in 2009 after shouting “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” the Army insists the attack was not related to the defendant’s acknowledged radical Islamic beliefs and was not an act of terrorism.

Each situation is different, of course, but at what point does sidestepping issues rather than dealing with them become a policy?