Israeli PM: Sanctions on Iran should increase despite new moderate president

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the international community on Sunday against easing sanctions on Iran following the election of a reformist-backed president, as the country's nuclear efforts remain firmly in the hands of Iran's extremist ruling clerics.

Mr Netanyahu made the comments a day after the surprise victory by Mr Hasan Rohani in Iran's presidential election was announced.

Although Mr Rohani 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, defence and foreign affairs - remain solidly in the hands of the ruling clerics and their powerful protectors, the Revolutionary Guard.

Mr Netanyahu said 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 Teheran, 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.

Teheran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful, a claim that Israel and many Western countries reject.

Mr Netanyahu said that sanctions on Iran should be increased to pressure Teheran to end its suspect nuclear programme.

"The more pressure increases on Iran, so will the chance of ending Iran's nuclear programme, which remains the biggest threat to world peace," Mr Netanyahu said.

Earlier, Israel's Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz made similar remarks to Army Radio. "It's good to see the Iranian people protest against the radical regime," Mr Steinitz said of the Iranian election results. But he cautioned: "As long as we don't see a change it's better to be wary and not celebrate prematurely."

Mr Steinitz is close to Mr Netanyahu, and is responsible for monitoring Iran's nuclear programme.

He said he doubted that the election of the new president will soften Iran's stance in its nuclear stand-off with the West.

"Therefore the international community needs to work hard to tighten sanctions and present a clear ultimatum to Iran in order to maybe bring about change," Mr Steinitz said.

Israel has said that it prefers diplomacy and sanctions to end Iran's nuclear programme, but has hinted that military action would be an option if other peaceful attempts fail. It has called on the international community to issue a clear ultimatum to Iran to curb its nuclear programme.

Israeli analysts disagreed as to whether having a more moderate Iranian president would make the Islamic Republic harder for Israel to deal with.

Professor Meir Litvak, head of Iranian studies at Tel Aviv university, told Army Radio that Mr Rohani's "smiley face to the West" might make the option of military action harder.

Mr Rohani's predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had on multiple occasions made references to the destruction of the Jewish state. The Iranian President has also described the Holocaust, when six million Jews were systematically killed by German Nazis and their collaborators during World War II, as a "myth".

Mr Uzi Arad, Mr Netanyahu's former security adviser, said however that Mr Rohani's taking over might be to the 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," Mr Arad said.

Mr 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".