The warm reception received this week at the United Nations by Iran’s newly elected President Hasan Rouhani hasn’t made things easy for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For years, Mr. Netanyahu has warned anyone who will listen about the threats he says are posed by Iran: its support for the militant Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and allegedly carrying out terrorist attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in Argentina and Europe. Most of all, he warned about the scale of Iran’s nuclear program, the clear purpose of which, he said, is to develop nuclear weapons. The Israeli Prime Minister worked hard to win the support of U.S. and other Western leaders for Israel’s point of view.
Now, however, those same leaders are full of praise for the new Iranian President and the message of moderation they found in his 30-minute speech to the UN General Assembly Tuesday.
Israeli analysts say the Western leaders are being taken in by a sophisticated Iranian public-relations campaign.
“Rouhani tells them that Iran doesn’t really want nuclear weapons and they’re inclined to believe him,” said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Israel. “Iran no longer thinks of the United States as the Great Satan,” he said. “It’s the great sucker.”
Ironically, Mr. Rouhani’s predecessor, the Israel-threatening Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made things easier for Mr. Netanyahu. As long as Mr. Ahmadinejad was in power, he “served as Israel’s number one talking point,” wrote Chemi Shalevan in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this week. Mr. Ahmadinejad embodied “Tehran’s sinister designs,” he said.
Now, Mr. Netanyahu and his allies have to argue that the more respectable Mr. Rouhani, while widely seen as a reformer, represents the same old policies, just in a brand new package.
“We are the kid who shouts that the emperor has no clothes,” said Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Rouhani, Israeli analysts insist, said nothing to prove he will act to change Iran’s nuclear program.
In his speech to the General Assembly, Mr. Rouhani said nuclear weapons “contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions” and “have no place in Iran’s security and defence doctrine.”
“Those are fine words,” said Ephraim Asculai, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, and a former official at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. “But there isn’t a single deed that confirms them.”
“Iran has refused to implement the Security Council resolution to suspend enrichment,” he said. “They deny access to their [nuclear] facilities,” he adds. “Why should be believe them now?”
Mr. Rouhani insists Iran is now prepared to engage in nuclear negotiations on condition that the world acknowledges it has the right to enrich uranium.
“Iran gave up that right,” said Dr. Asculai, when it “was found by the IAEA and the UN Security Council to be in noncompliance of its [non-proliferation] treaty obligations.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s opportunity to rebut the Iranian message comes next Tuesday – he is scheduled to be the last leader to address the General Assembly – but he has wasted no time in condemning the Iranian leader’s statements.
“Rouhani spoke of human rights even as Iranian forces are participating in the large-scale slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement immediately following the Iranian speech, an apparent reference to Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters battling on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “He spoke of a nuclear program for civilian purposes even as an [International Atomic Energy Agency] report determines that the program has military dimensions.”
Mr. Netanyahu even ordered Israel’s UN delegation to leave the hall before the Iranian President spoke.
“As the Prime Minister of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, I could not allow the Israeli delegation to be part of a cynical public-relations ploy by a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for our destruction,” Mr. Netanyahu said in the statement.
But Finance Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the second largest party in parliament, called it “a mistake” to behave this way. “Israel should not seem as if it is serially opposed to negotiations and as a country that is uninterested in peaceful solutions,” he said.
With the international community admiring Iran’s new-look President, Mr. Netanyahu knows he’ll be seen as a party-pooper for launching into criticisms of Mr. Rouhani. But so be it his supporters say.
“I don’t think we’re all that alone,” said Dr. Asculai. “People can see the truth.”