JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday warned the international community against easing sanctions on Iran following the election of a reformist-backed president, saying the country's nuclear efforts remain firmly in the hands of Iran's extremist ruling clerics.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued the warning a day after the surprise victory by Hasan Rowhani. Although Rowhani is considered a relative moderate and had the backing of Iranian reformists, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the ultimate authority on all state matters and key security policy decisions, including nuclear efforts, defense and foreign affairs, remain in the hands of Khamenei and his powerful protectors, the Revolutionary Guard.
Netanyahu noted that the Iranian clerics disqualified candidates they disagreed with from running in the election. He said the international community must not get caught in "wishful thinking" and ease the pressure on Tehran, saying "Iran will be tested by its deeds."
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat, citing Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, its support for anti-Israel militant groups and its missile and nuclear technology.
Tehran insists its nuclear program is peaceful, a claim that Israel and many Western countries reject.
Netanyahu said that sanctions on Iran should be increased. "The more pressure increases on Iran, so will the chance of ending Iran's nuclear program, which remains the biggest threat to world peace," Netanyahu said.
Israeli President Shimon Peres took a softer line. While Peres said it was too early to make predictions, he felt the vote was a clear sign of dissatisfaction with Iran's hard-line leadership and its outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"More than half of Iranians, in their own way, in my judgment, protested against an impossible leadership," Peres told The Associated Press. "Ahmadinejad spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build an idol of uranium. What for? He brought down the people the people on their knees. The economy is destroyed. Children don't have enough food. Youngsters are leaving the country. Iran became a center of terror, they hang people, they arrest people. What for?"
He said the biggest loser in the vote was Khamenei. "It is clearly a voice of the people and a voice that says, 'We don't agree with this group of leaders,'" Peres said.
Israel has said that it prefers diplomacy and sanctions to end Iran's nuclear program but has hinted that military action would be an option if peaceful attempts fail. It has called on the international community to issue a clear ultimatum to Iran to curb its nuclear program.
Some Israeli analysts felt having a more moderate Iranian president might make the Islamic Republic harder for Israel to deal with.
Meir Litvak, head of Iranian studies at Tel Aviv University, told Israel Army Radio that Rowhani's "smiley face to the west" might make the option of military action less likely.
In contrast, Uzi Arad, Netanyahu's former security adviser, said that Rowhani's taking over might be good for Israel.
"It's true it might be easier to have an unstable, screaming and vulgar character like Ahmadinejad. but at the end of the day it might be better to have a character that you can deter and can convince via pressure to get the desired result," Arad said.
Arad told Israel Radio that it was a good sign that millions of Iranians voted for a candidate who "explicitly spoke about acting to ease sanctions and strive for talks with the West."