Iran’s regime is ignoring Israel’s election. It has its own problems.
The Islamic Republic is heading to its own election on June 18, and President Hassan Rouhani has been trying to beg the West for support as he claims “hard-liners” will maneuver against him before the polls.
This is the kind of talk designed to get the West to agree to a new Iran deal, with Washington pressured to do so. The argument is a kind of “good cop, bad cop” concept where Iran claims that if the US doesn’t bend to its demands, then bogeyman “hard-liners” will sweep him from office.
While Rouhani is ineffectual, some see him as also being pragmatic. At the end of the day, the regime is more interested in its own internal problems than in Israel’s election. Another reason it doesn’t want to highlight Israel’s election too much is because it would force itself to admit that the “Zionist” regime is actually a healthy and diverse democracy, one that average Iranians likely wish they had.
The overall picture of Iran’s disinterest in Israel’s election is that Tehran has no real policy toward the Jewish state. It threatens to destroy the country but secretly knows that any attacks on Israel will result in serious repercussions.
Recently, it has sought to telegraph threats from Yemen, with the Houthis it backs preparing missiles and drones that ostensibly could threaten Israel. But even from Yemen, Iran knows there is a risk: If it uses the Houthis to strike at Israel, it will destabilize the region and anger Washington.
In Syria it has a related problem. Iran’s entrenchment threatens Russia’s investment in the Syrian regime. Only in Iraq and Lebanon does Iran have an uncontested role, and in both places it has bitten off a chunk of the country but has an economic crisis on its hands.
For Rouhani, who came to power in 2013, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a known adversary. But Rouhani doesn’t seem to care much about Netanyahu, and vice versa. Back in 2018, Netanyahu rejected criticism from Rouhani, but the two rarely mention each other and have little in common.
Rouhani is an uninspiring leader who hasn’t appeared to accomplish much. He has, however, put down protests and kept the country from collapsing under sanctions. His overall role is undermined by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which conducts foreign policy, develops missiles and appears to do most of the important work in Iran when it comes to threatening the region.
THE END result is that Iran has no hope that Israel’s election will somehow result in it getting what it wants in the region. It poses an existential threat to Israel through its nuclear-weapons work, and it knows that across the Israeli political spectrum, there is a largely shared view of the Iranian threat.
For Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, hatred of Netanyahu has often been a pressure point he uses in the West. He often accused the Trump administration of working for Netanyahu and argued that the prime minister was somehow personally dragging the US into conflicts in the region.
This is likely because Zarif reads some media outlets in the US and thinks singling out Netanyahu can make Tehran appear to be on the side of left-leaning critics in the West. Iran does this kind of messaging a lot, pretending it is involved with woke and progressive causes in the US, even though it is a far-right authoritarian regime.
For this reason, Zarif would talk about “Bibi-firsters” in the US, trying to channel US talking points that were critical of Trump’s close relationship with Israel. Iran sought to meddle in US internal politics this way. But it appears that Zarif’s talking points are largely lost to most Americans, who don’t get up in the morning wondering what Iran’s foreign minister thinks.
It’s also difficult for him to pretend that Netanyahu has invented a fake Iranian threat when it is openly enriching uranium and threatening the region. The message from Tehran has been that Iran is on the side of the US against Israel and Saudi Arabia, trying to tap into conspiracies about Zionism and the Republican Party being close to the Likud Party.
Iran has largely been unsuccessful in trying to pretend that its far-right regime is somehow a natural regional ally of the Democrats in the US. Political parties in democracies are not supposed to have preferences for authoritarian regimes abroad. Insofar as Iran played this card, it is because it wants Netanyahu to remain in power, since it has no idea how it would accuse his opponents of being too close to the US.
But Iran’s ham-handed approach in these methods has so far not gotten it what it wanted. The new Biden administration is not anti-Israel, and it is not as critical of Netanyahu as the Obama administration was.
Zarif’s playbook perhaps worked a decade ago. For that reason, Iran is so far not taking too much stock of Israel’s election.