With a smile, Rouhani has forced an Israeli strike off the table
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures to his supporters at a rally in Tehran ahead of his election in June
The past two weeks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York have been a carefully choreographed dance between three performers.
In the first act, the American and Iranian presidents both set out the very basic parameters of a potential agreement on Iran’s nuclear pr+ogramme and warily made their first contact.
In the second, Israel’s prime minister arrived, received assurances from the American president and then sparred with the absent Iranian president from the podium. It was a performance that contained no surprises and a conclusion that had been clear from the outset.
Nothing has changed and everything has changed. A military strike on Iran, whether Israeli or American, is definitely off the table for now. However, no player has genuinely altered his position.
Hassan Rouhani has said that Iran is not planning to build a nuclear weapon but his country will not give up its right to enrich uranium. Barack Obama still insists that all options are on the table to prevent an Iranian bomb but that, first, all diplomatic alternatives must be exhausted. Benjamin Netanyahu still is not prepared to believe the Iranians for one minute and warns that, if Israel has to go it alone, against international consensus if need be, it will act against Iran.
What is different now is that the reluctance of the Obama administration to launch a military offensive — as seen last month over Syria — has strengthened the belief in the region that the US, under this president, will never follow through with a threat to attack Iran.
On the other hand, the Iranian diplomatic campaign, while not based so far on any tangible change in its policies or actions, is an indication that Tehran is under severe economic pressure from Western sanctions and feels the urgent need to reach some kind of diplomatic agreement.
Whether this will be enough to force Iran to relinquish its nuclear designs is yet to be seen and will be directly connected to the toughness that American and European negotiators show in the next rounds of talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
Where does that leave Israel and its potential attack on Iran? Israel has no choice for now but to wait out the next six months. Despite Mr Netanyahu speaking of “hope and vigilance” in his UN speech, he has little if any hope that an agreement ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions can be reached. As he said, over the past 12 months, Iran has increased its capability to make a quick rush for the “red line”.
Mr Netanyahu is not bluffing when he warns of an Israeli attack. Along with former Defence Minister Ehud Barak, he was prepared to launch strikes early in the summer of 2012. Intense pressure by his own security chiefs, President Shimon Peres and the Americans, stayed his hand but he is steeling himself for another showdown next spring.
For now, diplomacy will rule the day but it has a limited time-frame and, if Mr Netanyahu stands firm, six months from now, unless the Iranians prove surprisingly forthcoming, the military option will be back on the table.