Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that the peace overtures made last week at the United Nations by Iranian leaders were nonsense and lambasted Iran’s new president as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” seeking to pull the “wool over the eyes of the international community.”
“I wish I could believe [President Hassan] Rouhani, but I don’t because facts are stubborn things, and the facts are that Iran’s savage record flatly contradicts Rouhani’s soothing rhetoric,” Mr. Netanyahu said just one week after world leaders gathered in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting.
Mr. Rouhani last week cast himself as a more accommodating and diplomatically adroit successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose acerbic rhetoric over the past eight years pit Iran against Israel and much of the Western world. The maneuvering was welcomed by the Obama administration, which has spent recent years ramping up economic sanctions to pressure Tehran into cooperating with international nuclear inspectors.
But Mr. Netanyahu was not sold. After a visit Monday to the White House, where he cautioned Mr. Obama not to take the Iranians at their word, the Israeli prime minister headed to New York in hopes that the world might turn its gaze again toward the U.N. podium, where he stressed that “Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map,” alluding to a phrase Mr. Ahmadinejad had used.
“When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, here’s my advice: Distrust, dismantle and verify,” said Mr. Netanyahu, who added that while “we all want to give diplomacy with Iran a chance to succeed,” the economic pressure and the threat of military force must be kept against Iran if the process is going to succeed.
“Last Friday, Rouhani assured us that, in pursuit of its nuclear program, Iran — this is a quote — Iran has never chosen deceit and secrecy,” the Israeli prime minister said. “Well, in 2002, Iran was caught red-handed secretly building an underground centrifuge facility in Natanz. And then in 2009, Iran was again caught red-handed secretly building a huge underground nuclear facility for uranium enrichment in a mountain near Qom.”
Mr. Netanyahu said other Iranian actions were incompatible with Mr. Rouhani’s words.
“Why would a country that claims to only want peaceful nuclear energy, why would such a country build hidden underground enrichment facilities?” Mr. Netanyahu asked. “Why would a country with vast natural energy reserves invest billions in developing nuclear energy? Why would a country intent on merely civilian nuclear programs continue to defy multiple Security Council resolutions and incur the tremendous cost of crippling sanctions on its economy?”
The Israeli prime minster added that Mr. Rouhani served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, during which time “he masterminded the strategy which enabled Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program behind a smoke screen of diplomatic engagement and very soothing rhetoric.”
Iran issued a dismissive response to Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks before they were even delivered. In an interview on Iranian state television during the hours before the Israeli prime minister appeared onstage in New York, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said it was in the Israeli prime minister’s nature “to lie,” and asserted that Mr. Netanyahu is the “most isolated individual” in the United Nations.
“Over the past 22 years, the regime, Israel, has been saying Iran will have nuclear arms in six months,” Mr. Zarif said. “The continuation of this game, in fact, is based on lying, deception, incitement and harassment.”
Such rhetorical fireworks between Israel and Iran are not new. Tehran refuses to recognize Israel as a legitimate nation-state and some Iranian leaders have fueled the flames of anti-Semitism by denying that the Holocaust ever happened. Tehran also supports anti-Israel militants in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas group.
Israel has threatened military strikes repeatedly against Iran’s nuclear facilities and is widely believed to be behind sabotage efforts, including the use of computer malware and assassinations of its scientists.
Defusing the tension between Israel and Iran is one of the most difficult challenges facing the Obama administration, if it wants a new era of diplomatic relations with Tehran. President Obama seemed to confront the challenge head-on Monday by reassuring Mr. Netanyahu that, despite the appearance of quickly warming relations with Iran, the White House remains “clear-eyed” about the threat posed by the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
Mr. Netanyahu showed subtle signs Monday that Israel may be willing to back a deal in which Iran proceeds with a nuclear program, as long as the program is not militarized.