Last Friday, the United States and Iran reached what many consider a watershed moment in a relationship characterized by a significant lack of trust and long-term animosity. When newly elected Iranian President Hasan Rouhani briefly spoke with President Obama via telephone, our nations experienced their highest-level diplomatic engagement in over thirty years.
President Obama praised the conversation as an important first step in reconciliation between Iran and the United States, stating that a “comprehensive solution” to the nation’s tensions may be possible. Although many Americans certainly view this thaw in relations as a positive development in the United States’ increasingly precarious position in the Middle East, some critics at home and abroad seem concerned about Obama’s engagement with the most moderate Iranian President of modern times.
Perhaps most significant among these critics is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Speaking at the United Nations on Tuesday, Netanyahu suggested that Rouhani is not the moderate leader that he claims and appears to be. Referring to the Iranian President as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, Netanyahu sent a clear message to his American counterpart and the larger global community: Rouhani is a liar, and he is manipulating Western leaders and the international community in order to gain time and space for Iran to develop its alleged nuclear weapons program without the ire of the international community.
Certainly, Israel would be at great risk should Iran successfully develop such a weapons program, and although Hasan Rouhani has made a concerted effort to publicly reach out to Jewish populations, his aggressive stance on the Israeli state remains threatening and unacceptable to the larger international community.
Yet, it is not in Israel’s interest to publicly decry greater communication between the leader of its most important ally and the leader of its most dangerous enemy. While there is certainly validity to the concern that Rouhani’s overtures are nothing more than political posturing, there is very little validity to the notion that an untested Iranian leader could dupe the international community.
Rather, dialogue between the United States and Iran will be a crucial part to deterring Iran from developing nuclear weapons. If Netanyahu does not want to communicate directly with the top echelon of Iranian leadership, how exactly does he expect to prevent the development of a dangerous weapons program?
Undoubtedly, economic sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy, leading Netanyahu to remind the international community that the country is “on the ropes”. A hard-currency shortage has had large-scale reverberations in the Iranian economy that have recently led Iranian leadership to admit that the sanctions must be lifted for the nation to advance economically.
While Netanyahu appealed to his international counterparts to counter the threat of Iranian nuclear development via further isolation and the projection of economic soft power, there is little evidence that this strategy will be successful.
Decimating the Iranian economy—although creating a plethora of domestic challenges for Iran’s leaders—does nothing to show the Iranian people that the international community their government is often at odds with offers any sort of positive alternative. Conversely, continuing to engage in bellicose rhetoric and calling for increasing pressure at a time when a popular and newly elected leader is reaching out to the global community will only reinforce the negative image of the United States and Israel that Iran currently provides its citizenry.
It is far too early to determine what Hasan Rouhani’s true intentions are in pursuing more direct engagement with Western leaders. That said, it is always imprudent to negate an opportunity for positive discourse between unfriendly states. Peaceful conflict mitigation in the international system requires a great deal of deliberation and diplomacy, and Benjamin Netanyahu made clear this week that he is unwilling to engage in either.
Until the actions of the Iranian state under Rouhani give the international community any reason to doubt the legitimacy of his overtures, they must be addressed in a respectful and open-minded manner.
The danger of a nuclear-armed Iran is real for both Israel and its American ally. Unless he is willing to unilaterally attack suspected Iranian nuclear facilities, Netanyahu must leave the fear-mongering rhetoric aside and prepare to accept American engagement with Iran’s new leader on a nuclear agreement that is beneficial to all parties in the region.
The long-term security of his nation may very well depend on it.