Hostility between Rouhani and Netanyahu escalates regional tension

  • Rouhani continues to challenge the international community with Iran’s nuclear program.
  • Netanyahu seeks new regional allies after Trump departs from the White House. 
  • Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain align positions with Israel in the face of the Iranian threat.
Rouani Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)
Benjamin Netanyahu
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Why is Rouhani hostile towards Netanyahu?

Answer: Due to Iran’s nuclear program, support for proxies such as Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, amongst other reasons.

Iran’s nuclear program began under Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi in the 1950s, with the United States’ help to improve relations between the two countries. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the program temporarily came to a halt. It was soon resumed, although without Western assistance. The following years were a continuous escalation of tension. The tensions peaked in 2011 when Leon Panetta (US Secretary of Defense) affirmed that Tehran could have a Nuclear arsenal in less than a year. At that time, Israel threatened Tehran to curb the nuclear development; if it didn’t comply, Israel would unilaterally launch attacks to end the nuclear program. 

Several crises occurred in the coming years, but the countries reached an agreement in 2015. Iran promised to reduce the Uranium enrichment rate until 2030 rather than stop it, so long as the sanctions were lifted against the Persian country. While in the West, the agreement was recognized as a great success of diplomacy, several leaders of the Middle East, whose recommendations were not considered in the agreement, considered it a failure. Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel), Mohammed bin Salman (Saudia Arabia) and Mohammed bin Zayed (UAE) denounced the agreement, stating that it did not prevent Iran from taking over a nuclear arsenal; it would only postpone the progress for a decade and a half. 

Trump’s arrival at the White House led the United States to withdraw from the agreement and reestablish sanctions. The argument given was that Iran had intensified its belligerent actions throughout the region, financing and arming proxies, cyberattacks, and harassing commercial traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, among other actions. The escalation of tension is permanent.

In the last 2 months, the Rouhani government has been accused of being responsible for the attack on the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi. Rouhani has also been accused of environmental terrorism for the oil spill off the coast of Israel by a Syrian ship, which was carrying Iranian smuggled crude to his ally, Bashar Al Assad. Lastly, several private Israeli companies have suffered cyber attacks by hacker groups with known ties to the Iranian Quds Forces. 

For its part, the Netanyahu government does not always confirm but also does not deny its actions. But the Israeli defence policy is well known. No aggression goes unpunished. Israel’s intelligence services have an active network within Iran and can deliver blows to the Persian country. But to avoid triggering a direct conflict, a large part of their offensive actions are carried out, particularly against pro-Iranian militias or against the Quds Forces established in Syria. 

What does Rouhani want?

Answer: The withdrawal of sanctions imposed by the United States without giving up Iran’s nuclear goals. 

Unlike his predecessor, Hasan Rouhani has a more moderate profile. Without acceding to the demands of the regional players, Rouhani strives to turn Iran into a Nuclear Power and increase his regional influence through his proxies. He has always indicated that he is open to negotiations, allowing him to enjoy a position of strength. Still, the West considers this as a concession and not a mandatory step to avoid a conflict.

The 2015 agreement was a great political victory for Rouhani since it did not prohibit further development of the nuclear program; it only slowed it down for a few more years. All this in exchange for lifting the sanctions and unfreezing the international accounts seemed like a great deal. This was a major economic boost for a country that had been under sanctions since 1979, allowing the entry and use of large economic assets by the Iranian government. 

The US withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 and the reintroduction of sanctions (with new ones added by the Trump administration) were a major blow to the Iranian economy. Inflation surged by more than 30%, economic growth decelerated by 5%, a spike in the unemployment rate (falsified) to 24.5%, resulting in 35% of the population being pushed below the poverty line. 

This leaves Rouhani in a delicate situation since he not only faces external pressure from both his neighbours and the international community but is also beginning to be pressured by his own citizens. The development of the nuclear program was driven by an ambition to become a regional power and, above all, to be less vulnerable to the international community through ‘hard power.’ But the lifting of sanctions is a priority for the regime to preserve its stability and continuity. 

Iran sees the Abraham Accords as an offensive move played by all its regional enemies, precipitating further belligerent activity from the Persian country. On the other hand, Biden’s arrival to the White House brings in a ray of hope for Rouhani. The American president has been very favourable to reestablish the agreement, lift certain sanctions without prerequisites, and resume a relationship based on negotiations instead of pressure. 

What does Netanyahu want?

Answer: Prevent the expansion of Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East and prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. 

If we look back, Netanyahu has always been presented as the main figure opposing the P5 + 1 nuclear agreement reached in 2015. But the truth is, he hasn’t opposed an agreement as such, but the characteristics of the agreement reached. Rouhani refuses to improve the current agreement, given that Netanyahu, along with several Sunni countries in the Persian Gulf, is pressuring the international community to include both the ballistic missile program and the financing of related militias such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Badr Brigades in Iraq in the agreement. This would completely end the Persian influence and role as a regional power in the Middle East. 

For Netanyahu, it is key that the three points mentioned above are included in a possible future agreement considering that Iran has maintained a particularly belligerent tone against Israel for the past few decades. A tone that has been transformed into verbal threats of anchoring Israel, and physical threats, with the presence of terrorist militias on its northern border with Lebanon. 

What is Netanyahu doing?

Answer: Launching attacks against Iranian proxies and arms transfers, sabotaging infrastructures of the nuclear program and forging new alliances. 

During the Trump administration, Netanyahu found his closest ally in his fight against the Iranian nuclear program. An ally who gave him a wide sleeve to operate inside and outside the Iranian borders, who publicly supported him verbally and tacitly, and imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran. With the arrival of Biden to the White House and his premise of trying to return to the nuclear agreement, Netanyahu has had to tweak his strategy. 

Avoiding conflicting interests with Putin, Netanyahu has continued to order strikes against Iranian positions in Syria, Reaching more than 500 positions as of 2020. Attacks on convoys supplying weapons to Hezbollah have also continued. What’s more, Netanyahu has decided to act on Iranian soil. Rouhani and leaders of other nations attributed these actions. Still, Netanyahu has only admitted to one of them: the Raid in Tehran, an assault on warehouses in Tehran when around 55,000 documents, demonstrating the purpose of the Iranian nuclear program, were stolen. 

Other actions attributed to the Netanyahu government have been the hacking and sabotage of numerous infrastructures, such as ports or power plants. Perhaps two of the most striking actions were the assassination of the number two of Al Qaeda, Abu Mohammed Al Masri, and the ‘father of the Iranian nuclear program’, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

Netanyahu’s last move occurred at the end of February 2021, during the negotiations between Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The leaders have formed a Defensive Alliance to stop the Rouhani government’s objectives, which include the expansion of pro-Iranian militias and the nuclear program. 

Who is winning and what about you? 

Answer: There is a tense status quo, with periodic advantages for each of the parties, but with special care to prevent direct warlike confrontation. 

Neither Rouhani nor Netanyahu are letting their guard down, and the escalation of tension seems permanent for now, raising concerns over the possibility of a warlike conflict in the region. 

A conflict between the countries governed by Netanyahu and Rouhani may sound like a matter that does not concern us. But the truth is that this conflict would occur in the backyard of Europe. In addition, it would not be exclusively between two nations; it would certainly drag other countries in the region. 

The consequences of this conflict would be innumerable. To begin with, there could be a second wave of immigration, as observed with the Syrian civil war. On the other hand, several European countries have aligned their positions with Israel, which would increase tensions with Iran and the threat of proxy attacks.

And perhaps the most important part would be the economy. The possible countries involved in this conflict produce 42% of the world’s energy resources. These infrastructures would be the target of attacks, and therefore, the supply and prices could be affected. Additionally, the seas surrounding these countries promote 35% of the world trade, serving as a connection route between Asia and Europe. 

The countries that signed the 2015 agreement show a willingness to return to the agreement and improve it, which the Rouhanigovernment has already rejected. Netanyahu, for his part, has already warned that he will not comply with such an agreement and that Israel will take the necessary measures to guarantee a non-nuclear Iran. Besides, he has found that his new regional allies share the same concern and common stance in the face of the growing Iranian threat. 

The key player in avoiding conflict, or at least controlling its escalation, appears to be Biden. Without much room for manoeuvre, Biden can either accept the position of his regional allies or fulfil his electoral promise and resume the 2015 agreement without improvements or conditions as required by Rouhani. Will Biden negotiate with Rouhani without making too many concessions? For the moment, the answer has been a repeated “No.”