Israel’s Novice Government Braces for Developments on Iran
Presidential elections in the Islamic Republic, continued nuclear negotiations in Vienna on the horizon
Israel’s new government has barely taken office, and it is already facing some massive security challenges and foreign policy decisions.
After approving Tuesday’s controversial Flag March in the Old City of Jerusalem – which drew the ire of Palestinian residents of the capital and led to limited cross-border attacks in Gaza between the Israeli military and Hamas – the new government in Jerusalem that was sworn in Sunday soon will be forced to deal with such explosive issues as the eviction of Palestinian residents from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem and the slated removal of a new illegal settlement recently erected in the West Bank.
Yet it appears the biggest foreign policy concern on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s plate remains the issue of Iran.
With its presidential elections scheduled for Friday, the Islamic Republic seems set to replace its moderate outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani, with hard-line leader and conservative politician Ebrahim Raisi.
The front-runner Raisi, currently serving as Iran’s chief justice, is all but assured victory, after a handful of his more moderate competitors’ candidacies were struck down by the nation’s Guardian Council, which vets candidates.
“It’s important for the regime to preserve the façade of elections, but this appointment is pretty much known in advance, so much so that it managed to upset even some conservatives,” Alexander Grinberg, an expert on Iran at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The Media Line.
“The internal power games between moderates and hard-liners in Iran are simply a good-cop-bad-cop show anyway. Yes, it’s true there is a real political debate in Iran. People can criticize the government. But they can’t criticize the Supreme Leader. The rival politicians all serve the same regime, with Khamenei remaining above the fray,” he said.
On Saturday, officials from Tehran and Washington returned to Vienna to resume indirect negotiations over a mutual return to compliance with the abandoned 2015 nuclear deal.
The sides have been holding talks via European mediators, who earlier this week called the back-and-forth talks “intense” and expressed hope that an agreement could be struck in the coming days.
Yet, Iran’s chief negotiator Abbas Araghchi has indicated no “final conclusion” will be reached before his country’s June 18 elections.
The internal power games between moderates and hard-liners in Iran are simply a good-cop-bad-cop show anyway. Yes, it’s true there is a real political debate in Iran. People can criticize the government. But they can’t criticize the Supreme Leader.
Despite pledging to remain committed to existing pacts negotiated by the outgoing administration during Saturday’s final presidential debate, Raisi nonetheless slammed Rouhani for projecting weakness on the world stage during his tenure.
“I don’t foresee any change in policy” following the Iranian elections on Friday, says Grinberg, who also serves as a geopolitical analyst for the Reut Group.
“Iran is a country of permanent revolution, of constant confrontation. Enemies are always present, from within and abroad. The confrontation with Israel and America is an essential part of the Iranian ideology which the regime can never give up,”. Grinberg said.
“But Khamenei is also a very cautious man, not at all irrational or a warmonger. He sticks to his policies. It’s important for him not to drag Iran into a serious, direct war with Israel or the United States. That isn’t likely to change, regardless of who is elected president,” he added.
Iran began violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s limits on uranium enrichment several months after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed harsh economic sanctions.
During his inaugural address in parliament earlier this week, Bennett, to no one’s surprise, signaled he would largely stay his predecessor’s course on all things Iranian.
“Israel won’t allow Iran to procure a nuclear weapon,” the prime minister vowed. “We will not be party to any agreement [signed with Tehran] and will maintain our freedom to act militarily.”
Yet a different approach, especially toward American efforts in Vienna, could be in the works by the new government.
“The tensions between [former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu and [US President Joe] Biden were clear and well known. Netanyahu didn’t do anything to hide his opposition to the discussions with Iran, dating back to his speech in Congress in 2015,” says Professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
“The new government has the same basic thinking about a potential deal with Iran, but may try a different method as to how to approach Washington about it,” Gilboa said.
While he says it might be too late for Israel to alter the first stage of the agreement currently being hammered out in the Austrian capital, Gilboa believes the second stage, in which an extension of the original pact will be discussed, should be Jerusalem’s focus.
“There may be an understanding that trying to affect the agreement, by maintaining close and warm relations with administration officials, is preferable to rejecting the whole thing outright and being left out of the loop,” he said.
In his speech Sunday, Bennett seemed to foreshadow precisely such intentions, stressing that “the US is our greatest ally” and that his government will “deepen and nurture relations with our friends in both parties. If there are disputes, we will manage them with fundamental trust, and mutual respect.”
The following day, in his remarks upon assuming his duties as foreign minister, Yair Lapid – set to replace Bennett as prime minister in August 2023 – declared that while he had in the past, and still does, oppose the JCPOA, “Israel could have, by conducting itself differently, influenced it much more.”
With a new leadership in Tehran expected as early as next week, and a renewed nuclear deal possibly finalized not long after, Israel’s inexperienced duo of Bennett and Lapid will have their hands full, soon.