When Israel viewed Iran's Rouhani as a trustworthy moderate

When Israel viewed Iran's Rouhani as a trustworthy moderate
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE has urged world leaders not to trust Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. In Netanyahu’s telling, Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” whose diplomatic engagement with the West is nothing more than a clever ruse. Netanyahu, apparently, sees no difference between pragmatic Iranian officials such as Rouhani and the conservative hardliners who lead chants of “Death to America.”

But Israeli leaders were not always so pessimistic or narrow-minded about Rouhani. In a remarkable – and little known – historical twist, the Israeli government once sought to empower a faction of moderate Iranian officials led by Rouhani. In fact, Israel’s insistence on U.S. support for the Rouhani-led group sparked the worst political scandal of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

On July 3, 1985, a senior Israeli official with a distinguished career in Israel’s famed foreign intelligence service approached the Reagan administration. The official stated that “we have made contact with [Iranian leaders] who are both willing and able, over time and with support, to change the government.”

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As Reagan recounted in his memoirs, the prospect of “reestablishing a friendly relationship” with Iran following the 1979 revolution “was very attractive.” According to Reagan, “Israel’s offer to act as an intermediary and help us open a channel to Iran’s potential future leaders seemed very interesting.”

But as Reagan vacillated, the Israelis grew increasingly adamant that the United States support Rouhani’s group. To sway Reagan’s team, Israel “sent information which they said showed that the Iranians they were talking to opposed terrorism and had fought against it.”

That was enough for the Gipper, who wrote: “Once we had information from Israel that we could trust the people in Iran, I didn’t have to think thirty seconds about saying yes to their proposal.”

Reagan subsequently gave the green light to a secret diplomatic mission to Tehran. And in May 1986, thanks to Israeli intermediaries, Reagan’s team met directly with the future president of Iran, then a 37-year-old senior foreign policy adviser.

Reflecting on the discussions, Reagan wrote: “I didn’t need any arm-twisting ... to convince me that we ought to try to establish a connection with responsible people who might be the future leaders of Iran. Here was a bona fide opportunity to shape the future in the Middle East.”

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Beyond freeing American hostages held in Lebanon, Reagan’s objective was simple: “We wanted moderates running the Iranian government.”

While the Tehran meeting left U.S intelligence officials impressed by Rouhani, he ultimately proved too politically weak in mid-1986 to enact meaningful changes in Iran.

Importantly, however, Reagan’s team feared for Rouhani's safety — and with good reason. Following the secret discussions, the Iranian supreme leader’s hand-picked successor “publicly called for the execution of all those who had met with the Americans.” As Reagan later noted, “If word leaked out about the negotiations ... the lives of Iranian moderates involved ... would be in jeopardy.”

In other words, Iran’s current president risked his life and political career to secure support from – and improve relations with – the United States.

In a country where “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” are common refrains among ultra-conservatives, Rouhani’s willingness to stick his neck out to work with Israel and the United States demonstrates remarkable grit.

While frustratingly weak in 1986, Rouhani was elected president in 2013. Once in office, his administration waged a campaign against corruption, sapping Iran’s anti-American conservatives of power and influence through arrests and cutbacks. At the same time, Rouhani enacted a series of Gorbachev-style free-market, anti-monopoly economic reforms and called for the release of peaceful protesters detained by the government. Much of his time in office has been spent fighting trigger-happy hardliners.

Netanyahu’s attacks on Rouhani aside, this is not the political track record of a conservative or hardline ideologue.

Moreover, Iran was in full compliance with the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement before President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE’s ill-advised withdrawal. It would thus appear that Israel’s one-time insistence on Rouhani’s trustworthiness has been borne out as he rose through Iran’s political ranks.

At the same time, attacks by Iranian-linked militias against U.S. interests in Iraq ceased after the Iran nuclear agreement was signed (only to flare up after Trump torpedoed the deal).

While Trump’s approach to Iran proved politically catastrophic for Rouhani and Iran’s moderates, President Biden must act quickly and decisively if he seeks to achieve Reagan’s desire “to ensure that the next government in Teheran [is] moderate and friendly.”

Ultimately, Netanyahu’s attacks on Rouhani are a remarkable reversal from Israel’s one-time insistence on empowering Iran’s moderates. Far worse, Netanyahu’s narrow-minded approach strengthens the most repressive, corrupt, anti-American and anti-Israel factions in Iran. 

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.