With this year’s “charm offensive,” Rouhani fundamentally altered the international conversation on Iran.
Viewed from outside the Prime Minister’s Office, Israel’s diplomatic plate in 2013 looked as if it was brimming over with not one, but two entrees: Iran and the Palestinians.
Both issues were vitally important, both issues demanded enormous amounts of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s time, both were at the very top of the international agenda.
But, truth be told, from Netanyahu’s perspective these are not two equal entrée’s. Rather, there is the main course, and the ancillary one. And in his mind the primary main course is obviously Iran. This came across crystal clear in his September speech to the UN, a speech of 3,143 words – 2550 of them devoted to Iran, and only 215 to the Palestinian issue.
Was it because the Palestinian issue is unimportant in Netanyahu’s eyes? No, rather because a nuclear Iran is an existential threat for Israel, while the Palestinian issue – at least in the short term – is not viewed by him as such. Faced with an existential threat, and a serious problem that needs to be resolved, the existential threat will always take precedence.
And there is no one who emerged in 2013 as a more important player on the Iranian issue than Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.
Rouhani, though long an important actor on the Iranian scene, was relatively unknown to the Israeli public until he emerged as the victor in Iran’s June elections. But once he won those elections and embarked on his charm offensive, particularly with his trip to the United Nations in September, he significantly changed the discussion on Iran.
Smiling, speaking in mild tones, appearing cuddly and avuncular (someone once described him as looking like Santa in a turban), Rouhani was quickly labeled a “moderate” by the media, a label that contrasted with the “hard-line” tag the mainstream media frequently affixes to Netanyahu’s name.
Iran — which under its former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looked so menacing to the world – seemingly overnight became a partner to be engaged.
And engaged it was. Engaged to the point where the world powers – the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — agreed to relieve sanctions it took years to build up in return for an Iranian agreement to halt, but not significantly roll back, its nuclear program. And in the process Rouhani drove a wedge between Israel and the US over Iran policy, and succeeded in getting Netanyahu – who shouted against the agreement from every rooftop — cast in the role of naysayer, warmonger, and perpetual party pooper.
Rouhani is 2013’s person of the year in diplomacy: not because his achievements during the year were good for the world or the Middle East, but rather because he fundamentally altered the international conversation on Iran.
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