Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is no Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — and that, to some Israelis, is a bad thing.
Rouhani, the moderate cleric who won the presidency in June, has recently been on a "charm offensive" in the Western media. Yesterday, he told NBC News that Iran "will never develop nuclear weapons" and that he had "full authority to make a nuclear deal with the West."
Then The Washington Post published an op-ed by Rouhani in which he offered to work with the United States and play peacemaker in Syria. The language is notably dovish. Rouhani wrote of the need to "join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue," and "address the broader, overarching injustices and rivalries that fuel violence and tensions" in the Middle East.
The international community needs to "aim higher" when it comes to a whole range of issues, including Iranian-U.S. relations, Iran's nuclear program, he wrote. "Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better."
Compare that to Ahmadinejad, who told world leaders at the U.N. last year, "The current abysmal situation of the world and bitter incidents of history are due mainly to the wrong management of the world and the self-proclaimed centers of power who have entrusted themselves to the devil."
But despite Rouhani's conciliatory words, Israel and other critics of Iran already "sorely miss" Ahmadinejad, according to Chemi Shalev at Haaretz.
Shalev argues that Ahmadinejad served as "Israel's number one talking point, its strategic propaganda asset, a poster boy who self-explained Tehran's sinister designs." He contrasted him with the new Iranian president:
Rouhani, it should already be obvious, is a different kettle of fish altogether, a sharp and formidable foe that should not be underestimated… As Iran's nuclear negotiator, Rouhani has confessed to engaging European concerns as a cover for accelerating Tehran's nuclear program. His interview on NBC and his carefully crafted op-ed in The Washington Post show his capacity to appeal to American audiences while trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the "pressure groups" that support "troublemaker" Israel. [Haaretz]
In other words: It's a trap.
Rouhani hasn't exactly been directing his charm offensive at Israel. On NBC News, he called the country "an occupier and usurper government" that "does injustice to the people of the region, and has brought instability to the region, with its warmongering policies."
That has left Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fuming.
"Rouhani claims in the interview that Israel is responsible for the instability in the region while Iran sends its people to massacre innocent civilians in Syria and encourages terrorism around the world," he said in a statement.
Netanyahu claimed that the goal of Rouhani's outreach is simply to reduce outside pressure to stop its suspected nuclear weapons program.
"The test is not in what Rouhani says, but in the deeds of the Iranian regime which continues to advance its nuclear program with vigor while Rouhani is being interviewed," Netanyahu's statement read. "The Iranians are engaged in a media spin in order to keep the centrifuges spinning."
We should get an idea of how serious Rouhani is in the coming week, as he visits New York to attend the annual opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. Reports suggest that the Iranian regime may be serious about offering concrete concessions on its nuclear program in order to alleviate crippling oil and banking sanctions that have been imposed by the West.