JERUSALEM — The surprising victory of a reformist candidate in Iran’s presidential election has put Israel in a difficult position as it tries to halt the Iranian nuclear program: With Hasan Rowhani likely to enjoy an international honeymoon, Israel could have a hard time rallying support for new sanctions — or possible military action — against its arch foe, even as it says the clock is ticking on Tehran’s march toward nuclear weapons.
The uncertainty facing Israel was evident Sunday in the reactions among its leaders, who welcomed the signs of change in Iran while also warning the world should not be fooled.
“Let us not delude ourselves. The international community must not become caught up in wishful thinking and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Rowhani swept to a landslide victory in Friday’s election with a call for outreach and dialogue with the international community. His predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, repeatedly clashed with the West over the nuclear issue, isolating the country and drawing several rounds of painful economic sanctions. Rowhani’s victory was widely seen as a show of discontent with Ahmadinejad and Iran’s hardline clerical establishment.
While Rowhani is considered a relative moderate and had the backing of Iranian reformists, the hardline supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the ultimate authority on all state matters, including the nuclear program.
Israel, along with major Western countries, suspects that Iran is developing the infrastructure that would allow it to make a nuclear bomb. Although Israel believes Iran has not reached weapons capability, Netanyahu has warned that Iran is inching perilously close to the “red lines” where the nuclear program could no longer be stopped.
Israeli leaders have welcomed the sanctions, which have fueled double digit unemployment and inflation in Iran. But they say the economic pressure isn’t enough, and that military action cannot be ruled out.