Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the suggestion that Iran will reengage constructively with the international community after the victory of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani in the country’s presidential election as “wishful thinking”, and urged international powers not to ease trade restrictions and embargos imposed on the economically struggling Persian nation.
“The international community should not fall into wishful thinking and be tempted to ease pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme,” the Israeli prime minister warned on Sunday. “Iran will be judged on its actions. If it insists on continuing to develop its nuclear programme the answer needs to be clear – stopping its nuclear programme by any means.”
Netanyahu pointed out that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Iran’s supreme leader – has final say on any decision to scrap the country’s nuclear programme, which Tehran has always insisted is used exclusively for electricity generation.
Netanyahu, who has been a long-standing critic of Iran’s decision to develop nuclear technologies, displayed none of the optimism that the country’s president, Shimon Perez, or justice minister Tzipi Livni, displayed when questioned about their reactions to Rouhani’s election.
Speaking to the press hours after Rouhani was named president, Perez said: “He said he will not go for these extreme policies; I’m sure he specified his policies. But it will be better, I am sure – that’s why the people voted for him.”
Livni echoed the president’s sentiments, describing Rouhani’s win as a victory for the majority of Iranians, who according to poll results, are eager for a more moderate voice to represent them.
Netanyahu’s comments come hours after Rouhani, a former nuclear inspector, insisted that he is ready to open a constructive dialogue with Western powers – a play many commentators speculate the president-elect opted for in order to differentiate him from his staunchly conservative predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was well known for his anti-west views and unwillingness to engage with the international community. Rouhani is not thought to be as enamoured by the prospect of developing a working nuclear programme as the outgoing president.
Netanyahu’s firm words were matched by the Israel’s minister for intelligence Yuval Steinitz, who also expressed reservations about climbing down on sanctions while Tehran still expressed nuclear ambitions. Steinitz claimed that Iran’s nuclear capability was equal to “30 North Koreas”, and that Iran is inches from crossing the “nuclear red line”. Steinitz warned that allowing Iran to continue to operate nuclear facilities could alter “the balance of power once and for all between Islam and the Western World”.
The extreme picture painted by Steinitz’s was largely at odds with the views of world leaders, some of who are meeting at the Lough Erne resort in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland for this year’s G8 summit. A number of major powers, Russia, and critically the United States, welcomed Rouhani’s election, and expressed an eagerness to open a dialogue with the new regime.
The offices of Russian president Vladimir Putin and US president Barack Obama, who are both attending the summit, released separate statements congratulating Rouhani on his victory.
The Russian president “expressed confidence Hassan Rouhani’s work will further strengthen Russian-Iranian relations,” the Kremlin said.
Washington responded to Rouhani’s conciliatory speech with cautious optimism, seemingly appreciating the incoming president’s attempts to placate the distrust between Iran and the Obama administration. The White House said that it is committed to finding a “diplomatic solution that will fully address the concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme”.
While the United States and Russia have both expressed their willingness to engage with the new regime, it remains to be seen whether Rouhani is willing to negotiate the future of his country’s nuclear programme – a staple of Ahmadinejad’s rule – in order to develop a political equipoise.
“A new opportunity has been created by this great epic, and the nations who tout democracy and open dialogue should speak to the Iranian people with respect and recognise the rights of the Islamic republic,” Rouhani exclaimed after his victory.
Rouhani was elected on the first count, beating five other candidates to win 50.7 per cent of the vote. His nearest challenger, Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, only managed to secure 16.5 per cent of the ballots.