News Analysis: Irans new president not likely to alter position toward Israel

JERUSALEM — If Iran is headed in a new direction, it is not toward Israel.

That's the assessment of policy experts here, who say that the surprise election of a new moderate Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, is unlikely to soften Iran's hostility toward Israel.

"Unfortunately, Khatami has not expressed himself differently toward Israel than the present regime," said Professor David Menashri, head of a newly established chair for Iranian studies at Tel Aviv University.

Indeed, at his first news conference after his election late last month, Khatami made a point of saying that the Jewish state was still Iran's leading enemy. He accused Israel of pursuing a policy of state terrorism.

Khatami, 54, is a moderate compared to his arch-conservative rival, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, and as such Israel viewed him as the lesser of two evils.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded cautiously after the election results were announced May 24, saying, "I hope that this development is positive, but I think it would be hasty to jump to conclusions now."

Khatami's landslide victory — he won 20.9 million of the record nearly 30 million ballots cast — was viewed by analysts as a turning point in Iran's Islamic revolution, raising expectations that Tehran was poised to moderate its stance toward the West.

But given some of Khatami's recent statements, that moderation appears directed only toward domestic matters.

In addition to his remarks about Israel, Khatami has said that any warming of relations with the United States would depend on signs from Washington that it had changed its attitude toward Tehran.

For their part, U.S. officials have said repeatedly since the election that Iran must halt its state sponsorship of terrorism as well as its efforts to derail the Middle East peace process.

At his news conference, Khatami said Iran would continue to voice its opposition to the peace process, but that the country would take no steps to interfere with it.

But this was not viewed as a sign of moderation on the part of the president-elect, who will assume office after current President Hashemi Rafsanjani steps down in August.

Menashe Amir, the director of Persian-language broadcasts at the Voice of Israel and a well-known analyst of Iranian affairs, said in an interview that similar statements had been made by Rafsanjani, who though considered a moderate when first elected, brought relations with Israel and the West to an all-time low during his tenure.

The pessimism surrounding a change in relations leaves little hope that the case of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad and others will be resolved soon.

Arad bailed out from his fighter plane over Lebanon in 1986. The last time any message indicating he was alive was received was in October 1987. Israeli officials have repeatedly maintained that Iran is holding him.

Despite the less-than-promising outlook, Foreign Minister David Levy took a more upbeat public stance.

"Israel has never regarded Iran as an enemy," Levy said, adding that Israel should not give up hope of seeing Iran take part in regional peace efforts. He quoted Israeli intelligence assessments that there had been "a real change" in Iran.

But given the political realities Khatami will have to confront when he assumes office, such change may be difficult. The new president's own camp is composed of conflicting groups of liberals and extremists whose only common interest was to oust the current leadership.

Moreover, Khatami will face the strong opposition of the hard-line Majlis, the Iranian parliament. After losing to Khatami in the presidential race, Nateq-Nouri was re-elected this week as parliamentary speaker for a sixth year.

"Nateq-Nouri and his friends in the conservative Parliament may put up a fight," said Tel Aviv University's Menashri. "As a result, the presidential office may lose status."

Even if Khatami does show signs of moderation toward Israel, the word on such matters rests with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei, for example, controls Iran's unconventional warfare, including the nuclear option, a source of major concern for Israel.

Like Menashri, Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav, who was born in the same town as Khatami, believes it is important to study the political climate in Iran.

"It is not enough that Khatami is considered a liberal," Katsav said, adding that one has to consider the political environment in which he will be working.

Both Khatami and Katsav were born in Yazd, a city southeast of Tehran. Three years younger than the newly elected president, Katsav does not remember Khatami, but he did note that years ago Yazd had many synagogues and yeshivot.

This means that the new Iranian leader was well-acquainted with Jewish communal life, Katsav said.

Farbis Nazarian, a Jewish American businessman of Iranian origin, believes that despite the bleak outlook, Israel should continue efforts to improve relations with Iran.

"I don't know when, and I don't know in what form, but as a businessman who is well-acquainted with Iran, I believe that one should not be caught unready when the time comes to turn a new leaf in relations with Iran," said Nazarian, the main donor to the newly established chair at Tel Aviv University.

Katsav said Iran is already sending out feelers in an effort to improve relations with Washington.

"Eventually they could also do so toward Israel. But it will take time," Katsav added.

For his part, Amir of the Voice of Israel thinks Iran would put improving relations with Turkey and its Arab neighbors at the top of its foreign policy agenda.

Next, he said, Iran would attempt to mend relations with Europe. Those ties were badly marred when Germany and other European nations withdrew their envoys from Iran after a Berlin court ruled in April that Iranian leaders were behind the 1992 assassination of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin.

The foreign ministers of the European Union recently voted to return their diplomats to Iran. But at this point, Khamenei has indicated that the German ambassador would not be welcome.

Would Israel be next on the agenda after Iran works out its differences with Europe?

"Not necessarily," said Amir. "Once Khatami establishes himself as a liberal leader in the eyes of the West, he may take an even tougher stand vis-a-vis Israel to please the conservative Iranian camp."