At White House and UN, Israel's Netanyahu seeks to undo Iranian charm

Iran is not to be trusted and sanctions should be strengthened if it strengthens its nuclear program during negotiations, Netanyahu tells Obama and Biden over lunch at the White House.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes his deep skepticism over the new Iranian leader’s Western charm offensive to the United Nations Tuesday, fresh from delivering stern warnings on Iran over lunch at the White House Monday.

Mr. Netanyahu goes to New York with two principal concerns: first, mounting suggestions that the UN Security Council – whose permanent members are to meet with Iran in mid-October to try to negotiate a deal on Iran’s nuclear program – could accept some level of uranium enrichment in Iran.

And second: seeing Iran join a trend in the Middle East toward regional powers that have good relations with the West but that have poor to hostile relations with Israel.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was the toast of New York last week, as he spoke of a new Iranian openness and desire for engagement with the world at the UN General Assembly, met with think tanks and media executives, and culminated it all with a telephone conversation with President Obama.

Mr. Netanyahu is expected to take to the UN the same message he presented to Mr. Obama and to Vice President Joe Biden at the three leaders’ lunch: that Iran is not to be trusted, and that while Mr. Rouhani was smiling and tacking toward rhetorical moderation in New York last week, the centrifuges that create enriched uranium were still spinning away back in Iran.

Exhibiting none of the tenseness that marked some of the two leaders’ past meetings, Netanyahu spoke of his deep appreciation for what he called Obama’s commitment to “preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” Stating flatly that “Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction,” the Israeli leader went on to praise Obama for insisting that Iran’s conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions.

“It is Israel’s firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during [the coming round of] negotiations, the [existing economic] sanctions should be strengthened," Netanyahu said at the White House, seated next to Obama.

For his part, Obama – who is facing pressure from some in Congress to further tighten the economic screws on Iran even as the US joins in negotiations – reassured the Israeli leader that he would demand “the highest level of verification” of compliance with any plan curtailing Iran’s nuclear program before agreeing to any reduction of existing sanctions.

Rouhani spoke last week of his desire to reach an accord on the nuclear standoff within a matter of months, while Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, also at the UN, suggested Iran and world powers might agree on a step-by-step plan for matching confidence-building steps from Iran with a gradual easing of sanctions.    

Iran’s nuclear program and continuing uranium enrichment – a process that if not curtailed could before long leave Iran at the “breakout point” for fueling a nuclear bomb, nonproliferation experts say – are Netanyahu’s chief short-term concerns. Growing speculation that the US and other Western powers could accept a low level of Iranian enrichment as part of a deal designed to keep Iran from ever developing a bomb have alarmed the Israeli leader, Israel experts say.

But a broader geopolitical trend in the Middle East is just as worrisome to Israel, some regional analysts say.

Netanyahu insisted at the White House that Iran has not changed – he calls Rouhani a wolf in sheep’s clothing – and remains committed to Israel’s destruction. But another threat to Israel, in Netanyahu’s worldview, is a trend toward Middle Eastern powers that have increasingly hostile relations with Israel but which are not pariah states and that have good relations with the West.

An example of the trend is Turkey, says Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at London’s European Council on Foreign Relations.

But exponentially more worrisome for Netanyahu would be to see Iran on a similar path by reducing its isolation from the West – and in particular from the United States – even as it achieved legitimacy for even a low-level enrichment program.

Yet as worrisome as such a development might be for Israel, some security experts say Iran’s short-term nuclear threat to Israel is being overplayed in the hype surrounding Iran’s international charm offensive, and that the primary targets of Iran’s defensive activities and geopolitical aims are really Iran’s Gulf neighbors and the US.

“Iran’s public focus on Israel … disguises the reality that its primary strategic focus is to deter and intimidate its Gulf neighbors and the United States – not Israel,” writes Anthony Cordesman, national security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a recent report on Iran’s military aspirations in the Middle East.

As for Iran’s threat to Israel, it would be years after Iran ever developed “some form of a nuclear device” that it could have significant nuclear forces, Mr. Cordesman says – who adds that, as a result, Iran is unlikely to “be able during the next decade to pose as much of a nuclear threat to Israel as Israel now poses to Iran.”

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