JERUSALEM -- Alarmed by the prospects of renewed U.S.-Iran negotiations and suggestions that the new Islamic leadership might chart a more moderate path, Israel is ramping up its threat to take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear program.
On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran has continued to develop its nuclear program, even after the election of Hassan Rouhani, whom he has labeled a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“The president of Iran is trying to present a new image to the West, but advances in the nuclear program continue,” Netanyahu said during a visit to proposed new military bases in the Negev desert. “He tells us no threats will help. But the truth is that the only thing in the last 20 years that has helped stop Iran’s nuclear program were pressures and the explicit threats of military action.”
On Tuesday, Rouhani, in his first news conference since his inauguration Sunday, said Iran would not respond to threats. The new Iranian president said Iran was prepared to enter serious nuclear talks with the West, including with the United States, but would not respond to pressure tactics.
Rouhani, a former chief nuclear negotiator for Tehran, took some pointed shots at Israel’s influence in Washington without mentioning Israel specifically.
“Unfortunately, the war-mongering lobby in the U.S. is opposed to constructive [talks] and only protects the interests of the foreign regime, and often receives orders from that regime,” Rouhani told reporters in Tehran on Tuesday. “The interests of the lobby and the foreign regime have been imposed on the American lawmakers. We see that they even ignore U.S. interests.”
The change in Iran’s leadership has been a major source of concern in Israel.
Believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power, Israel has long threatened to take military action to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb. But Netanyahu had toned down the rhetoric over the past six months.
But Rouhani’s election seems to have reinvigorated Israel’s campaign to rally international focus on Iran by threatening to take unilateral miliary action.
On Tuesday, an unnamed senior Israeli official told Israel Radio that Netanyahu’s government was losing faith in the Obama administration’s promise to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The official cited America’s cautious approach to dealing with Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons and said Israel cannot bank on U.S. assurances.
The official added that Israel was still capable of launching a military operation against Iran without U.S. operational support, although he acknowledged it would be less effective than a U.S. strike.
At the same time, the former head of Israel Defense Forces intelligence -- who has previously spoken out against a unilateral Israeli strike -- said Wednesday that U.S. resistance to an Israeli attack may be softening.
Amos Yadlin, director of the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank, told Army Radio on Wednesday that he detected a “different music” from Washington on the matter. If in 2012 the U.S. maintained “the brightest red light” on an Israeli strike, now it hasn’t perhaps changed to green, “but it’s definitely yellow.”
U.S. officials have not publicly signaled any change in their opposition to an Israeli strike, which many fear could prompt a regional war.
Netanyahu and others have voiced concern that Rouhani’s restrained image — a stark contrast from the provocative style of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — could result in a lessening of international pressure on Iran.
“Instead of leaders easy for the world to hate, now there are leaders wearing three-piece suits and a Hermes tie,” former Israeli Gen. Yoav Galant told Israel Radio on Tuesday. “But [they are] still extreme beneath a refined exterior.”
Iran says its nuclear efforts are for peaceful purposes such as energy generation and treatment of cancer patients. U.S. and Israeli officials suspect that Iran seeks to build a nuclear bomb.
Sobelman is a Times news assistant. Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.