President Shimon Peres on Sunday congratulated Iran for electing the relatively moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani as president in place of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying the vote results signaled a desire for change on the Iranian street.
In an interview with AP and Reuters, Peres hailed the election results as a blow to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “who was sure that the people would vote according to his decision,” according to Peres.
“It is clearly a voice of the people and a voice that says, ‘We don’t agree with this group of leaders,’” Peres added.
Nevertheless, he was cautious in his praise of the new president, a relative moderate who formerly headed his country’s nuclear negotiation team, saying it would only be possible to judge Rowhani on his actions in the future.
Peres’s comments marked something of a departure from those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who earlier on Sunday cautioned against thinking things would change under Rowhani.
“Let us not delude ourselves,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting. “The international community must not become caught up in wishes and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program. It must be remembered that the Iranian ruler, at the outset, disqualified candidates who did not fit his extremist outlook and from among those whose candidacies he allowed was elected the candidate who was seen as less identified with the regime, who still defines the State of Israel [in an address last year] as ‘the great Zionist Satan.’”
Khamenei, and not the president, determined Tehran’s nuclear policy, Netanyahu continued.
“The more the pressure on Iran increases, the greater is the chance of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, which remains the greatest threat to world peace,” he said. “Iran will be judged by its actions. If it continues to insist on developing its nuclear program, the answer needs to be very clear – stopping the nuclear program by any means.”
Still, Peres sounded more hopeful than the prime minister. “More than half of Iranians, in their own way, in my judgment, protested against an impossible leadership,” Peres said. “Ahmadinejad spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build an idol of uranium. What for? He brought the people to their knees. The economy is destroyed. Children don’t have enough food. Youngsters are leaving the country. Iran became a center of terror, they hang people, they arrest people. What for?”
Like Peres, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy told Israel Radio on Sunday that Rowhani’s victory was “the biggest failure Khamenei has suffered since coming to power” and he attributed the election results to the “anger and frustration” felt by the Iranian population over the sanctions levied on Iran by the West over Tehran’s nuclear program.
But government ministers have also cautioned against reading too deeply into Rowhani’s victory, with some saying the West should keep up the sanctions on Tehran despite the regime’s new, less extremist face.
The surprise election results of Friday would test the resolve of the West in its bid to deny Iran nuclear weapons, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) said.
“The test will be a test of actions, but you can’t know the results today,” Livni told Army Radio. “It’s correct that for the Iranians, [Rowhani] is a moderate face, but we will need to see if in his actions he is also more moderate.”
If Iran really is charting a more moderate path, then “the test will pass to the West,” she continued. It would be preferable for the West to “conduct itself wisely” by “continuing to pressure Iran” even if the Iranian people do not want to persist in the current direction, she said.
Iran’s nuclear drive would not be derailed by the election results, and its conclusion would only come about as the result of increased international pressure, International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud-Beytenu) said Sunday morning.
Steinitz told Army Radio that “the results are a credit to the Iranian people,” but wondered if Khamenei, who “actually manages foreign affairs, national security and Iran’s nuclear program,” would alter Iran’s “path and behavior.”
“I doubt it,” Steinitz said. “But if there are changes, it will be only after increased pressure.”
As long as Iran’s nuclear policy is dictated by Khamenei, international sanctions against Iran “must continue, regardless of the desire of the Iranian people for progress,” he said, adding that Iran was “only a year or less away from the nuclear red line.”
Steinitz, a veteran politician who holds several ministerial positions in the current government, is also in charge of Israel’s intelligence efforts on Iran.
Meanwhile, Meretz chair MK Zahava Gal-on offered a tongue-in-cheek lamentation over the imminent departure of outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose bellicose anti-Israel rhetoric has been widely cited by Netanyahu.
“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,” she said in a statement.
“Where will the prime minister turn to now, when someone asks him about the Palestinian conflict? 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?”
“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.”
On Saturday, acting defense minister Gilad Erdan (Likud), who is filling in for Moshe Ya’alon, said he 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.
“There might be a temptation… to agree to another round of talks, and then another round. Meanwhile the centrifuges are still spinning,” said Erdan, who is also minister of homefront defense and communications.
He told Channel 10 he was worried world powers might misconstrue Rowhani, because he is a cleric, as some kind of benevolent “spiritual” leader who might change policies, when this was certainly not the case.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman’s office issued a statement on Saturday on the news from Iran expressing a similar sentiment.
“The president elect in Iran had been shortlisted by Ayatollah Khamenei, who has disqualified and removed candidates who did not conform to his extremist views. Iran’s nuclear program has so far been determined by Khamenei, and not by Iran’s president.
“After the elections, Iran will continue to be judged by its actions, in the nuclear sphere as well as on the issue of terror. Iran must abide by the demands of the international community to stop its nuclear program and cease the dissemination of terror throughout the world,” read the statement.