Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded an alarm Tuesday over Iran’s recent claims to want a nuclear accord with the West, accusing the Islamic Republic’s moderate new president of waging a “charm offensive” to get sanctions lifted while still actively pursuing atomic bombs.
Netanyahu’s address to the U.N. General Assembly sought to dispel a mood of cautious optimism created last week when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif vowed to put the nuclear dispute to rest and ease more than 30 years of hostility in U.S.-Iranian relations.
The Israeli prime minister called Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.” When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, Netanyahu said, Rouhani only differs from his confrontational predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in that “Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing.”
Netanyahu reminded the annual gathering of world leaders of the “lessons of the 20th century,” alluding to the Holocaust. He warned that when radical regimes are allowed to acquire “awesome power,” their “appetite for aggression knows no bounds.”
The Iranian regime is under intense pressure from the population to get sanctions relief, Netanyahu said. “That’s why Rouhani got elected in first place, and why he has launched his charm offensive. He definitely wants sanctions lifted, but he doesn’t want to give up Iran’s nuclear weapons program in return.”
Urging the international community to stand tough on sanctions until suspected nuclear arms sites are fully dismantled, Netanyahu said this was no time to ease up on the very measures forcing Tehran to consider concessions.
“The international community has Iran on the ropes,” the Israeli leader said. “If you want to knock out Iran’s nuclear weapons program peacefully, don’t let up on the pressure.”
He recalled that Rouhani, a former national security chief and negotiator on the nuclear issue, campaigned on promises to get sanctions relief for beleaguered Iranians, who have seen oil revenues plummet and the value of their currency cut in half.
Netanyahu met with President Obama at the White House on Monday, when the two leaders discussed the prospects for negotiating a resolution of the nuclear standoff with Iran.
Quoting Obama, Netanyahu said: “We will want to give diplomacy with Iran a chance to succeed” but added that in his view, “the greater the pressure, the greater the chance” of securing a deal to scuttle any military nuclear aims.
“Three decades ago, President Ronald Reagan famously advised ‘trust but verify,’” Netanyahu recalled of the West’s dealing with the Soviet Union in nuclear arms reduction talks. “My advise now is distrust, dismantle and verify.”
Netanyahu vowed that Israel will take whatever steps necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
“Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly vows to wipe us off the map,” he stated.
Netanyahu also touched briefly on recently resumed peace talks with the Palestinians, stating Israel’s readiness to make concessions but accusing the Palestinians of an unwillingness to reciprocate.
“I’m prepared to make historic compromises for genuine and enduring peace but I will never compromise on the security of my people and the one and only Jewish state,” Netanyahu concluded.
Rouhani returned to Tehran over the weekend to be confronted by both angry reaction from hard-liners opposed to any Western rapprochement and cheers from crowds eager to get sanctions lifted.
Iran’s Press TV carried Netanyahu’s speech live, which was seen as a further signal of the new Tehran leadership’s more candid presentation of the state of its relations with Middle Eastern neighbors as well as with the United States.
Reactions in Israel were mostly supportive of Netanyahu’s account of a deceitful Iran attempting to negotiate as cover while scientists pursue the ability to execute a quick “breakout” of nuclear arms.
Danny Dayan, a leader of the settler movement, told Israel’s Channel 1 television that Netanyahu’s speech contained “no gimmicks or spark, only facts.” He described the previous week’s speeches to the General Assembly, which seemed to set a different tone in Iran’s diplomacy, as “a theater of lies and deception.”
Avi Shariv, former Israeli consul in New York, said in comments on the Ynet website that Netanyahu was conveying that diplomacy with Iran is worthless, “but the world doesn’t want to hear that the only solution is a military one.”
Times special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.