- Associated Press - Sunday, June 16, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — The surprising victory of a reformist candidate in Iran’s presidential election has put Israel in a difficult position as it tries to halt the Iranian nuclear program: With Hasan Rowhani likely to enjoy an international honeymoon, Israel could have a hard time rallying support for new sanctions — or possible military action — against its archfoe, even as it says the clock is ticking on Tehran’s march toward nuclear weapons.

The uncertainty facing Israel was evident Sunday in the reactions among its leaders, who welcomed the signs of change in Iran while also warning the world should not be fooled.

“Let us not delude ourselves. The international community must not become caught up in wishful thinking and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Mr. Rowhani swept to a landslide victory in Friday’s election with a call for outreach and dialogue with the international community. His predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, repeatedly clashed with the West over the nuclear issue, isolating the country and drawing several rounds of painful economic sanctions. Mr. Rowhani’s victory was widely seen as a show of discontent with Mr. Ahmadinejad and Iran’s hard-line clerical establishment.

While Mr. Rowhani is considered a relative moderate and had the backing of Iranian reformists, the hard-line supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remains the ultimate authority on all state matters, including the nuclear program.

Israel, along with major Western countries, suspects that Iran is developing the infrastructure that would allow it to make a nuclear bomb. Although Israel believes Iran has not reached weapons capability, Mr. Netanyahu has warned that Iran is inching perilously close to the “red lines” where the nuclear program could no longer be stopped.

Israeli leaders have welcomed the sanctions, which have fueled double-digit unemployment and inflation in Iran. But they say that the economic pressure isn’t enough and that military action cannot be ruled out. Mr. Netanyahu has called on the international community to present a “credible” military threat to Iran, and he hinted that Israel might even strike alone if it feels threatened.

Speaking to his Cabinet, Mr. Netanyahu noted that Ayatollah Khamenei had disqualified many more moderate candidates and that Mr. Rowhani has made hostile comments about Israel. He also said that Ayatollah Khamenei still oversees nuclear policy.

“The more the pressure on Iran increases, the greater is the chance of stopping the Iranian nuclear program, which remains the greatest threat to world peace,” he said. “Iran will be judged by its actions. If it continues to insist on developing its nuclear program, the answer needs to be very clear — stopping the nuclear program by any means.”

Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be a threat to its very existence, citing its support for militant groups on Israel’s doorstep, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, its calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and its development of sophisticated missiles capable of hitting it. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Israeli President Shimon Peres took a softer line than Mr. Netanyahu, saying the results amounted to a massive show of disapproval with Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad.

“More than half of Iranians, in their own way, in my judgment, protested against an impossible leadership,” Mr. Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told The Associated Press in an interview. “It is clearly a voice of the people and a voice that says, ‘We don’t agree with this group of leaders.’”

While saying it is impossible to predict the future, he said the vote was a “new beginning” that could pave the way for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear standoff.

When Mr. Rowhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator a decade ago, Iran temporarily suspended all uranium enrichment-related activities to avoid possible sanctions from the U.N. Security Council. Enriched uranium is a key component in building a bomb, though it does have other purposes as well.

Israeli analysts were divided over whether having a more moderate Iranian president might actually weaken Israel’s military option by making it harder to confront Iran.

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