Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged world leaders not to trust Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. In Netanyahu’s telling, Rouhani is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” whose diplomatic engagement with the West is nothing more than a clever ruse. Netanyahu, apparently, sees no difference between pragmatic Iranian officials such as Rouhani and the conservative hardliners who lead chants of “Death to America.”
But Israeli leaders were not always so pessimistic or narrow-minded about Rouhani. In a remarkable – and little known – historical twist, the Israeli government once sought to empower a faction of moderate Iranian officials led by Rouhani. In fact, Israel’s insistence on U.S. support for the Rouhani-led group sparked the worst political scandal of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
As Reagan recounted in his memoirs, the prospect of “reestablishing a friendly relationship” with Iran following the 1979 revolution “was very attractive.” According to Reagan, “Israel’s offer to act as an intermediary and help us open a channel to Iran’s potential future leaders seemed very interesting.”
Netanyahu’s attacks on Rouhani since then are a remarkable reversal from Israel’s one-time insistence on empowering Iran’s moderates.