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Analysis: Iran's shock election result sets a challenge to Israel

Darren Whiteside / Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in Jerusalem on Monday.

News analysis

The election of Hassan Rowhani as the new president of Iran seems to have stunned everyone – his supporters and staff, and analysts and decision-makers around the world.  

No-one expected that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei would allow a moderate to occupy the presidency at a time when Iran is under pressure, under sanctions and under suspicion.

And nowhere is the shock of Rowhani's election more profoundly felt than in Israel.

NBC's Ali Arouzi reports from Tehran, where Iranians overwhelmingly chose to elect moderate cleric Hassan Rowani, saying "it will be interesting to see what course he tries to take."

The country's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke twice in the days after the election, warning the world that Iran's new face changed nothing. 

"The election clearly reflects the deep disaffection of the Iranian people with its regime,” he said on Monday. “But unfortunately it doesn't have the power to change Iran's nuclear ambitions.”

Israel – and many in the West – have been deeply concerned about Iran's growing ability to process its own uranium. It argues that Iran is on the verge of being able to produce enough to make its own nuclear weapon. The fact that controversial outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is leaving doesn't change Israel's profound anxiety about its future survival: Western countries maintain that Tehran's nuclear program is a cover to one day develop an atomic bomb.

Consequently, severe international sanctions have been imposed, forcing sharp cuts to Iran's oil exports and hurting the economy.

Meanwhile Israel has been threatening to bomb Iran if Israel's own nuclear "red line" is crossed.

The election of a moderate, who is promising to open a new chapter in Iran's relations with the world and who says Iran will be "more transparent" about its nuclear program, arguably pulls the rug from under the tough-talkers in Israel.

It may be hard, for a few months at least, for Israel's position to be heard. Few will want to hear that all options in regards to Iran, including a military one, must be on the table.

Netanyahu probably knows he will struggle to communicate this. He is asking the world now to focus on Iran's known, core ambition of nuclear independence. 

"People have to be consistent," he said. "They have to see the important thing. And the important thing is, does Iran veer away from that -- that is, does it make a U-turn and go the other direction. Not whether it smiles or presents this or that more respectable face. What it does, not what it says it will do."

Presidential Official Website / / EPA

A handout picture made available by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's official website shows Ahmadinejad (L) greeting Iranian President-elect Hassan Rowhani (R) in Tehran on Tuesday.

Paradoxically, Israel had one of its best cards in the figure of Ahmadinejad when he cast doubt on the Holocaust and said Israel should be wiped of the face of the Earth. How could anyone do a deal with, or even talk to, a president who said such things? Israel knew the more Ahmadinejad ranted, the more the world would see how unreasonable Iran was.

Now he's leaving power and things are poised to change.  

Israel knows Rowhani's election is a moment of hope, a time for cautious optimism, perhaps an opportunity for a new and successful round of talks on the nuclear issue. It also knows Rowhani is a wily negotiator.

When he was his country's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, Rowhani kept Iran's nuclear program going without sanctions being imposed and without Iran being referred to the United Nations Security Council. He has also insisted that Washington and the West recognize what he said was Iran's right to enrich uranium.

By simply smiling as he did so much in his first news conference on Monday, Rowhani presents Israel with a challenge. Repeating the same phrases about the clock ticking and military options won't be enough for Israel now – it may have to find another way to check Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

At schools, in shops, and on the streets of big cities and small towns, daily life plays out in Iran.

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