One week ago, on Friday June 14, 2013, Iranians elected Hassan Rouhani, a highly-respected cleric and long-time fixture of the Iranian political and security establishment, to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the Islamic Republic’s next president. The victory of Rouhani, a pragmatic and technocratic centrist, shocked the majority of Western analysts; most had erroneously predicted one of the conservative candidates to assumed the office, with the blessing of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Perhaps the most telling, albeit predictable, response to the results came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, who dismissed the election as insignificant and rattled their sabres as usual. In an article originally posted at Mondoweiss, and republished below, I evaluate both the meaning of the election and the Israeli response to it:
Looking For ‘A New Devil’:
Israeli Leaders & Supporters Scramble After Iran Election
Hassan Rouhani’s unexpected victory in this weekend’s Iranian election has sent Israeli hasbara into a tailspin. The desire for an Iranian bogeyman is so intense in the warmongering mainstream of Israeli and neoconservative discourse that any attempt to mask their pre-election desires and post-election frustration has been futile. Their entire game plan has been on display — every Iranian leader is a New Hitler and every New Hitler must be stopped. The whole point is to stave off any possible reconciliation or even minor deflation of tensions between Iran and the West, namely the United States, so as to maintain permanent Israeli hegemony over the region and American largesse and diplomatic cover. A thaw after thirty-four years in the US-Iran standoff is scarier to Israeli leaders than all the unborn Palestinian babies under occupation. At least they’re already under Israeli control; the Islamic Republic of Iran never has been.
Daniel Pipes, that loathsome Likudnik, is at least clear about his hopes for the Iranian future. It lies not in the aspirations of the Iranian people, but in the smoldering ruins of a joint US-Israeli airstrike. Without a cartoonish scapegoat like the one the Western media made out of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad through their mistranslations and misinformation, Iran might not look so bombable. So Pipes – and the rest of his despicable ilk – wished mightily for the conservative Saeed Jalili to win Friday’s vote, or rather, using the well-established narrative, that Jalili would be selected as the winner by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
A more moderate Iranian president, the neocons know, might signal a change in diplomatic dynamics and open the door to a less combative and punitive negotiating stance from the West. Rouhani, especially, with his history as a nuclear negotiator and Master’s and doctorate degrees from a Scottish university, is an existential threat to well-worn Israeli propaganda of Iranian recalcitrance and obstinacy.
It was on Rouhani’s watch that Iran voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment in 2003 and accepted intrusive inspections above and beyond what was legally required by its safeguards agreement for two years, during which the IAEA affirmed the peaceful nature of the program. It was only after Iran’s European negotiating partners, at the behest of the Americans, reneged on their promise to offer substantive commitments and respect Iran’s inalienable right to a domestic nuclear infrastructure that Iran resumed enrichment.
The turnout for the vote – a whopping 72%, forecast accurately by pre-election polling – signals another chink in the armor of conventional hasbara. Iranians, by and large, have faith that their voices matter and that change – or consistency – and progress can be achieved through the ballot box and by collective engagement within their nation’s political environment. No, this doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone who voted on Friday is a supporter of the Islamic Republic as it is constituted today. But it shows that the Iranian public is in no way looking to the skies for a savior in the form of an F-16 and is confident that change will only come from within Iran – by Iranians, for Iranians – not forced or foisted upon them by crippling sanctions or foreign troops.
Two days before the election, in an unprecedented and masterfully strategic move – Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech, “My first recommendation is for an enthusiastic presence at the ballot box. It’s possible that an individual for some reason may not want to support the Islamic system, but he wants to support his country. Everyone must come out and vote.”
He added, “A maximum turnout at the ballot box is more important than anything else for the country. And the nation with a powerful action on Friday will prove its firm relationship and connection with the Islamic system and will once again make the enemy unfulfilled and hopeless,” concluding that, “No one knows the divine fate of the nation on Friday; however, the more votes the elected individual . . . receives, the more strength he has to stand against the nation’s enemy and defend the country’s interests.”
The Iranian electorate didn’t heed Khamenei’s words. Rather, Khamenei merely gave voice to how most Iranians already felt. The Iranian political system, founded far more on resistance to foreign domination than on religious fundamentalism, is of great pride to most Iranians, regardless of their particular feelings about the legitimacy or potential longevity of a theocratic republic.
The massive turnout undermined Western prognostications of both Iranian disillusionment and disinterest; the election itself, the first one administered by a new, independent election committee, was proof that Iranians and Iran itself will continue to shirk the easy categorization and absurd stereotypes ubiquitous in our own media and politics. After all, the centrist Rouhani, a long-time member of the highest echelons of the Iranian establishment whose candidacy was backed by two former presidents, was the only cleric in the race.
As astute Iran analyst Farideh Farhi wrote before the election, based on the growing and energized interest gleaned from independent polling, “a good sector of the Iranian society is interested in a more differentiated understanding of Iran; an Iran in which its citizens are not mere tools of a despot’s engineering.”
Yet, the same day Iranians took to the polls, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was in Washington D.C., delivering a speech at the AIPAC-affiliated Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ha’aretz journalist Barak Ravid reported,
The head of the Israeli defense establishment declared – without any reservations – that nothing will change as a result of the Iranian election and that, in any event, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will decide on the country’s next president.
It did not take long for the depth of Ya’alon’s embarrassment of himself, and of those on whose behalf he flew to Washington, became clear. At best, Ya’alon’s remarks reflected a serious error in judgment on the part of Israeli intelligence and provided additional proof of the limitations of Military Intelligence and the Mossad in predicting internal political shifts in Iran and in Arab states. At worst, his words reflected arrogance, prejudice and shooting from the hip of the very worst kind.
But how can we complain about Ya’alon, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in Poland on Wednesdsay that Iran’s “so-called” election will not bring about any meaningful change. Netanyahu’s and Ya’alon’s Pavlovian responses, as well as the statement issued by the Foreign Ministry on Saturday night, reflect the overall approach of the Likud government which rejects all change, exaggerates the threats, plays down the opportunities and sanctifies the status quo.
The only thing missing was for Netanyahu and Ya’alon to call for extending the term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as in the case of Egypt and former President Hosni Mubarak.
Indeed, the Israeli response was swift and expected. After years of insisting the Iranian President could single-handedly authorize a second Holocaust, Israel’s demagogue Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved quickly to keep the hysteria high. “Let us not delude ourselves,” he said in a press conference on Sunday. “The international community must not become caught up in wishes and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program.” Netanyahu also noted that the Iranian president wields no real power in Iran, a concept unmentioned throughout the Ahmadinejad era. “It’s the same Iran,” an Israeli government statement read.
Meanwhile, International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio on Sunday that, even though “the results are a credit to the Iranian people,” there would be no “change” in the Iranian nuclear program. As such, he said, sanctions against Iran “must continue, regardless of the desire of the Iranian people for progress,” since, after all, Iran is the new Nazi Germany and “only a year or less away from the nuclear red line.” Of course, according to Israeli estimates, Iran has been only a year away from this mysterious “red line” for and Steinitz has recently deemed the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran to be “equal to 30 nuclear North Koreas,” insisting that “if Iran gets the first few bombs, in a decade or so they will have 100 nuclear bombs.”
Back in September 2005, just a month into Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term and before the new Iranian president uttered a mistranslated word about Israel and maps, Steinitz was making identical comments.
“Despite all the different circumstances, we see similarities to what happened in the 1930s, when people underestimated the real problem or focused on other dangers. For us, either the world will tackle Iran in advance or all of us will face the consequences,” Steinitz, then-chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said during a trip to Washington. “Threats of sanctions and isolation alone will not do it.”
Indeed, for Israel, it’s always “the same Iran.”
Israeli politicians and pundits alike have been frustrated by Rouhani’s victory. Deputy Defense Minister Gilad Erdan “feared Rowhani’s win, and his reputation as a centrist and reformer, might lead the West to give Iran more leeway in diplomatic contacts over its rogue nuclear drive,” while Yedioth Ahronoth‘s diplomatic affairs reporter Itamar Eichner noted that Israel now worries it will have difficulty convincing the United States to support a military attack.
Knesset minister Zahava Gal-on of Meretz issued a statement reading, “I extend my sympathy to the Israeli government that, with heavy heart and head hung low, must bid farewell to Ahmadinejad, who served as propaganda card and as an excellent source of excuses to avoid dealing with Israel’s real problems.”
“Where will the prime minister turn to now, when someone asks him about the Palestinian conflict?,” she wondered. “What about the out-of-control budget deficit for which he was responsible?… What about the racism that exists within Israeli society?… What will he do?”
Gal-on’s statement added, “I fear that the election of the moderate Rowhani is not just a blow to the extremists in Tehran, but also to the extremist leadership in Israel, which will now have to replace intimidation with actions.”
Similarly, following the official election results, Yedioth commentator Yigal Sarna penned a piece entitled, “A New Devil,” in which he satirically lamented, “Oh Hassan Rouhani, you moderate, who invited you? What did you have to come for? What are we going to do without the scarecrow, the fanatic Ahmadinejad?” He continued,
What will we do without our Persian Hitler? What will Bibi draw at the UN? At whom will (Defense Minister Yaalon) storm and to whom will he send our smart bombs and how will Bibi distract people from the plundering here? How will we continue to talk about being the ‘villa in the jungle’ when the villa is filled with jungle and the jungle is filled with protest? What are we going to wave away when Danny Danons shake off every peace plan and lead us to international isolation?
“We need to return to the reality and quickly find a new devil,” Sarna concluded.
And we will. Because we need to.