Did Netanyahu's UN speech quash US optimism over Iran?

Israel may be willing to be the spoiler of US-Iranian rapprochement because in its leadership's eyes, the alternative is extermination.

Seth Wenig/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the 68th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly warned world leaders not to be taken in by Iran's beneficent overtures in an address to the United Nations Tuesday. His bellicose speech stood in sharp contrast to a week of conciliatory words and optimism about US-Iranian rapprochement, and has weighed on US efforts to sustain the sense of hope that pervaded the UN last week.

The Wall Street Journal wrote that he "castigated" the US outreach to Iran, while The New York Times carried the headline "Israeli leader excoriates new president of Iran" and its editorial board described the speech as "aggressive." Haaretz, a left-leaning Israeli newspaper, called it "combative."

Mr. Netanyahu gave his now-familiar refrain that the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, is a "wolf in sheep's clothing," warned that the US is at risk of being duped by the new leadership's moderate facade, urged that sanctions not be eased, and said Israel was not convinced by the new leadership's assertion that it was not pursuing nuclear weapons, the Journal reports.

"I want there to be no confusion on this point. Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said in the address. "If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone."

In a meeting at the White House Monday, President Obama reassured Netanyahu that the US remained committed to using force to stop Iran's nuclear program, if necessary, but the Israeli leader clearly remains unconvinced.

The US is struggling to maintain the congeniality and sense of possibility that it shared with Iran last week at the UN, which ended with a historic phone call between Mr. Rouhani and Obama.

The Journal reports that Obama's promise to keep military options on the table prompted a backlash from Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who said on Twitter that the comment was "macho and wrong."

"President Obama needs consistency to promote mutual confidence," Mr. Zarif wrote. "Flip-flop destroys trust and undermines US credibility." Reuters reports that Zarif wrote on his Facebook page that, "We will not let Netanyahu determine the future of our talks."

Today, an Iranian lawmaker criticized the US for lacking "stability" in its decisionmaking, Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency reports.

"Obama's dishonest behavior shown in his recent absurd remarks which were merely made to please the international hegemonic system and the world Zionism, proves that the Americans cannot be trusted as they are not stable in their decisions," member of the parliament's Judicial Commission Mohammad Ali Esfanani said, addressing an open session of the parliament on Wednesday.

[Mr.] Esfanani said that the US officials' dishonesty and instability had earlier been underlined by Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei who had also called for tact, vigilance and care when facing the Americans.

The New York Times cited a "stark" contrast between Netanyahu and Rouhani during their respective addresses.

Unlike the Iranian, who smiled during his address at the same podium and sought to appear conciliatory, the Israeli prime minister was low on smiles, high on sarcasm. Mr. Rouhani did not mention Israel by name, nor its prime minister; Mr. Netanyahu spoke the Iranian president’s name 25 times.

Mr. Netanyahu compared a nuclear-armed Iran to 50 North Koreas. He suggested that Iran’s behavior resembled those of Europe’s fascist dictatorships of the 20th century. In seeking sanctions relief, Mr. Netanyahu said, Mr. Rouhani “thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it too.” 

Gary Sick, a former National Security Council staff member and Iran specialist, described Netanyahu’s speech as an "ineffective attempt to abort the momentum that Mr. Rouhani had sought to build." 

“He was so anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually pushed the limits of credibility," he told The New York Times, describing it as incongruous after last week's outreach from Rouhani. “It really is jarring to see that, the extreme element, and how far he was willing to push it. He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”

But as The Christian Science Monitor's Jerusalem bureau chief, Christa Case Bryant, noted Monday, Israel is willing to be the spoiler, because in its leadership's eyes, the alternative is extermination. 

… [S]ome say Mr. Netanyahu, who meets with President Obama at the White House today, sees himself as playing a Churchillian role to alert the world to the dangers of appeasement, just as the formidable British leader did when faced by the Nazi regime. For one who sees the Iranian nuclear issue in existential terms, being perceived as a party pooper is a small price to pay. 

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