In the days leading up to Hassan Rouhani's presidential inauguration, a number of unfortunate squabbles between the newly elected Iranian leader and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, threatened to once again escalate regional tensions. Netanyahu, known for his mistrust of Iran's regional aspirations, to put it mildly, responded swiftly to Rouhani's alleged comments in which he reportedly said, "The Zionist regime is a sore which must be removed."
Although the newly elected Iranian leader immediately sought to distance himself from what he called a mistranslation, Netanyahu was quick to assert that Rouhani had revealed his "true face" sooner than expected. Well before Rouhani's disputed Al Quds Day remarks, however, Netanyahu called the Iranian leader "a wolf in sheep's clothing" in an American television interview where he sought to once again advocate steeper sanctions against Tehran's controversial nuclear program.
On the surface, the contentious rhetoric illustrates the wide gap between the two countries, fed by decades of hostility, even as Rouhani has signaled a desire to pursue a more conciliatory approach towards the international community. Yet, despite a well-known pattern of destructive rhetoric between Iranian and Israeli leaders, a highly symbolic goodwill gesture allegedly took place when than Israeli President Moshe Katzav and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Khatami, shook hands and greeted one another in Farsi at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005.
Although Tehran swiftly denied the alleged incident, a polite, if not a friendly greeting between Khatami and Katzav was not inconceivable as the Iranian leader diligently championed greater freedoms at home while advancing a dialogue among civilizations abroad. Despite Iran's well-documented support for terrorism and regional extremist movements, Khatami was highly regarded -- both domestically and internationally -- for his [unsuccessful] attempts to moderate Tehran's behavior at home and abroad.
Khatami's successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- as it is widely known -- sought in sharp contrast to defame the Jewish people by denying the Holocaust and spew hateful rhetoric towards Israel as he sought to use anti-Semitism as a cynical tool to advance Tehran's regional aspirations. Consequently, a "polite" greeting between Ahmadinejad and Israel's Shimon Peres certainly would have been inconceivable.
The stark contrast between the two Iranian leaders illustrate that the country's theocracy is far from monolithic, as claimed by some.
Although some observers rightfully stress that Iran's clandestine nuclear program continued, and even accelerated, under Khatami, a former French ambassador to Tehran, Francois Nicoullaud, revealed in a recent New York Times op-ed that "Rouhani was the main actor" behind the 2003 decision to temporarily suspend the program in question.
Iran's decision to do so was later confirmed by a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, a report partially dismissed by Israel.
It should be noted, however, that close allies routinely have conflicting intelligence estimates on matters related to sensitive diplomatic implications. Recently, this was illustrated again when France and Britain concluded that Syria had used chemical weapons against anti-government rebels, a claim that Washington later confirmed through its own intelligence.
If Nicoullaud's assessment is indeed accurate, the prospects of direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran under Rouhani seem better than they ever were during the previous Iranian administration.
Meanwhile, for those who argue in Israel, and elsewhere, that it does not matter whether Iran is led by a reformist president or by a hardliner, symbolism and rhetoric matter, especially when it comes to international diplomacy.
Ahmadinejad's extreme rhetoric not only accelerated Tehran's international isolation, but his reckless policies and contentious style was met with fierce domestic opposition as the 2009 "Green Revolution" illustrated. Once again, Iranians rejected Ahmadinejad's extremism -- largely defined by his anti-Israel stance -- by electing a candidate who pledged to revise the country's international pariah status and fix its sanctions battered economy.
At this crossroad, it is certainly understandable that Israel and Washington's Arab-allies fear that the Obama-administration could reach a deal with Tehran without [fully] accounting for their interests.
At the same time, it is also clear that Ahmadinejad's repeated threats to "wipe Israel off the map" accelerated the international community's efforts to impose punitive sanctions on Iran. Netanyahu, for his part, helped the sanctions process by periodically threatening airstrikes should diplomacy fail.
Now, however, Netanyahu's fierce anti-Iran rhetoric could quickly backfire should he continue to insist publicly on a "viable military option." Although it is fair to assume that the Pentagon has drawn up a number of contingency plans vis-a-vis Iran, Israeli war rhetoric would not only hamper chances for diplomacy, but more importantly undermine Israel's standing as a peace seeking nation.
Despite Israel's contentious relationship with Iran, Jews and Persians enjoy a historic friendship that stretches nearly 2,600 years back in time. In fact, Persia's role in the development of Judaism in its inception and the contributions of Iranian Jews to the development of Iranian civilization cannot be denied. The ancient Persian emperor, Cyrus, for example, is mentioned 22 times in the Hebrew Bible for allowing the Jews to return from Babylonian captivity to their ancestral homeland. This is one, but many milestones in the rich history between Persians and Jews.
Unlike elsewhere in the region, Iranians, generally speaking, do not harbor negative perceptions nor historical grudges against Israelis. It is also clear that potential Israeli airstrikes against Iran would not only bring an end to that friendship, but erode the Jewish state's long-term strategic position as she hardly cannot afford to have adversarial relation with Iranians and Arabs alike.
At the same time, Netanyahu's decision to hold direct talks with the Palestinians should be welcomed. At the backdrop of this development, it would also be prudent for Washington to use its leverage to facilitate strategic dialogue between Israel and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council on issues ranging from the peace process to Iran and Syria.
Although it is also far from certain whether the election of Rouhani would lead to a breakthrough between Tehran and Washington, it would be prudent for Israeli and Iranian leaders to cool down their rhetoric to give diplomacy a chance. Failure to do so, would also undermine U.S. regional strategic objectives as the Iranian people is one of the most pro-American peoples in the Islamic World.