The past few weeks witnessed drastic change of governments in Israel and Iran amid the ongoing cold war between the two countries. The election in Iran shows signs of further entrenchment of the conservatives in Iran’s political landscape and denial of space to moderates and reformists. The election of the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on June 18 is seen as being orchestrated by the conservatives under the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who holds the real levers of power in Iran. The Supreme Leader of Iran is the ultimate authority in the country irrespective of the presence of a President and his cabinet and the Majlis or the Iranian parliament. The Supreme Leader exercises his superior authority over these elected positions and institutions through his control of even powerful institutions such as the Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council. The members of the latter institutions are not elected and these institutions effectively check the influence of the President and the Majlis. Until now, a major purpose of the position of the President of Iran, even if it is not explicitly mentioned, was to shield the Supreme Leader from the rigours and criticisms of day-to-day governance of the country, and thereby also protect the continuity of the theocratic system of government that was established after the revolution in 1979. As part of this intention, there was a modicum of legitimacy for presidential elections in Iran till now as moderates were allowed to contest and win the elections and become the President. 

Unlike previous elections, the latest presidential election in Iran witnessed unprecedented rejection of moderate candidates and deliberate orchestration to ensure Raisi’s victory. This shows signs that the conservatives are in the process of entrenching their influence in the political landscape of Iran in the light of growing frustration with the theocracy which came to light in one of the largest protest movements against the Islamic Republic in 2019. But despite this victory, it is in Iran’s interest to ensure that the negotiations in Vienna to renew the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or more popularly known as the Iran nuclear agreement lead to a new agreement and the consequential lifting of sanctions against Iran which has severely hurt the Iranian economy along with the impact of COVID-19. This has been understood by Raisi’s statement that he would abide by the agreement after his government assumes power in August even if it is signed by the present Iranian government led by Hassan Rouhani.  It is not clear how the new government in Iran would act with regard to the current cold war going on between Iran and its arch rival in the region, Israel which itself has got a new government. 

A new coalition government consisting of rightist, centrist and leftist parties and even an Islamist Palestinian Arab party Ra’am (representing Palestinian Arabs within Israel) led by the far-right Naftali Bennett assumed power in Israel after winning the vote of confidence in the Israeli Knesset by one vote on June 20 putting an end to Benjamin Netanyahu’s twelve year stint as Prime Minister of Israel. The coalition came to power after four inconclusive parliamentary elections in two years and when Netanyahu failed to cobble up a coalition after the most recent election on March 23. The coalition came to be, because of mainly a power sharing arrangement between Bennet who is the leader of the far-right Yamina party and Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party. According to this arrangement Lapid would become the prime minister after two years in 2023 and both of them would have the veto on all major decisions. The nature of this government will surely have an impact on the cold war that is going on between Iran and Israel. The Israeli coalition government is not in a position to pursue an active policy of striking at Iranian targets like Netanyahu because of its political position. Bennett is perhaps the weakest prime minister in Israel’s history as his party only holds six seats in the coalition. Any issue that has serious ramifications can lead to the exit of any one of the parties in the coalition and the resultant downfall of the government.

In such circumstances, the Israeli government is most likely to focus more on recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and restoring governance in Israel which had been held hostage to Netanyahu’s political interests. A budget has not been passed in Israel since 2018. While Bennet had opposed restoring the nuclear deal with Iran, he is not likely to oppose it as vociferously as Netanyahu. Regarding the areas in which Israel and Iran are targeting each other, Israel is not likely to precipitate a crisis with Iran by conducting sabotage at Iranian nuclear sites or targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. Same is the case with sabotaging Iranian-owned naval vessels in the seas which hads been likely responded to by Iran in kind. But even then, it would be hard for Israel to prevent itself from conducting air strikes against precision-guided missiles and rockets in the hands of Iranian proxies in neighbouring Syria which could be used to target Israeli cities. As it is the case with a lot of such issues in West Asia, the present Israeli government could find itself in a crisis not of its own making. 

Dr Shelly Johny
Dr Shelly Johny
Dr Shelly Johny is Senior Fellow (West Asian & Security Studies) with Centre for Public Policy Research

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