Jewish leaders and analysts here largely applauded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sobering speech Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly in which he called for the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, although some were critical.
Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA, said he believed Netanyahu “had no choice at the present time but to give such a speech, given what he said in the past and the fact that Iran has not moved constructively only atmospherically” on this issue.
Spiegel, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, argued, “Had he been softer, he would have lost credibility. … There is plenty of time to become more accommodating — and domestically there would have been severe criticism. Already, there is criticism [in Israel] that he is too chummy with [President Barack] Obama.”
Although some had suggested that Netanyahu use his speech to reach out to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and even propose bilateral talks, Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator and adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said Netanyahu was right in “not making any concessions at all.”
“It would not have served Israel’s interests to reach back to Rouhani. Israel believes Iran is playing a game. … He had no stake in presenting anything other than a fundamental distrust of Iran and saying that Iranians are still interested in a nuclear weapon. He fundamentally believes it is up to him personally to lift the veil on the wolf.”
Miller was referring to Netanyahu’s claim that “Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the eyes — the wool over the eyes of the international community.”
“Well, like everyone else, I wish we could believe Rouhani’s words, but we must focus on Iran’s actions,” Netanyahu said. “And it’s the brazen contrast, this extraordinary contradiction, between Rouhani’s words and Iran’s actions that is so startling. Rouhani stood at this very podium last week and praised Iranian democracy — Iranian democracies. But the regime that he represents executes political dissidents by the hundreds and jails them by the thousands.”
But Seymour Reich, past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he believes Netanyahu’s rhetoric was excessive, that he “came down too hard.”
“It’s understandable of him to be unconvinced by Rouhani, but he should have held the door open a little bit more in terms of the possibility that something may result of a positive nature” from negotiations, Reich said. “It is important that Israel not be stranded out there as the talks get underway.”
Israel is not alone, insisted David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute, who said that when it comes to “the big picture, there is more that unites the U.S. and Israel on Iran than divides them. Whatever the differences, they are at the tactical level.”
Netanyahu’s speech, Makovsky said, was designed to tell the world to be “vigilant and not to be lulled by a charm offensive” that Rouhani attempted during his visit here last week.
He predicted that there would be U.S.-Iranian bilateral talks “towards the end of the year,” in addition to the talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany that are scheduled for Geneva on Oct. 15-16. They would be the first talks on Iran’s nuclear program since talks in April ended without an Iranian response to proposals suggested by the European Union’s chief diplomat, Catherine Ashton.
Makovsky said he is convinced that the U.S., Israel and even Iran know that a major lifting of the sanctions against Iran — which have had a crippling impact on its economy — will only occur as a result of a major deal.
“What is intriguing, given Iran’s prevarications in the past, is that Iran is now sending out signals that it wants to move big and quickly,” he said. “We’ll see whether all three countries [the U.S., Iran and Israel] are on the same page. But Iran has clearly moved from a year ago, when it thought it had all the time in the world.”
The sanctions, Makovsky added, have “given diplomacy a chance — even though there is no guarantee. … There is reason for skepticism, given Iran’s track record, but Iran is feeling a lot of heat and Rouhani is sending signals that he wants to deal and that he doesn’t have a lot of time.”
Netanyahu in his speech said the only way for a diplomatic solution to work is if it succeeds in getting Iran to fully dismantle its nuclear weapons program and is prevented from having one in the future.
“President [Barack] Obama rightly said that Iran’s conciliatory words must be matched by transparent, verifiable and meaningful action,” Netanyahu said. “And to be meaningful, a diplomatic solution would require Iran to do four things. First, cease all uranium enrichment. This is called for by several Security Council resolutions. Second, remove from Iran’s territory the stockpiles of enriched uranium. Third, dismantle the infrastructure for nuclear breakout capability, including the underground facility at Qom and the advanced centrifuges in Natanz.
“And, four, stop all work at the heavy water reactor in Iraq aimed at the production of plutonium. These steps would put an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program and eliminate its breakout capability.”
Such a hardline approach was not unexpected. His aides had been quoted last week as saying Netanyahu was preparing such remarks.
Former Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman, who had been a strong proponent of implementing sanctions on Iran to compel it to give up its nuclear weapons program, said Netanyahu was correct in calling out Rouhani.
“Iran has a history of delay and trying to run out the clock until they actually posses a workable nuclear weapon that they can put on a delivery system,” he said. “The prime minister is right in saying that this cannot be allowed to happen. As someone who was in the vanguard of sanctions, I can tell you they must be kept up. I am all in favor of talks and negotiations, but while they are going on the sanctions must be maintained on their economy.”
Ackerman described Rouhani as a “wolf in a smiley face — just because he says some nice words does not mean they will necessarily change their policy.”
A similar viewed was expressed by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who said that “without rejecting diplomacy, the prime minister set forth the minimal positions that the free world should set in order to negotiate with the Iranians.”
“He analyzed and reminded the world of the deception that Iran has been guilty of, and he spelled out that at this moment there is no evidence that the deception will not continue,” Foxman added. “He was rational, reasonable, emotional and a statesman. He disappointed critics who wanted him not to be negative or shrill.”
In his remarks, Netanyahu referred to Iran’s terrorist activities worldwide, decrying Rouhani’ crocodile tears in speaking of the “human tragedy in Syria.”
“Iran directly participates in [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s murder and massacre of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Syria,” he said. “And that regime is propping up a Syrian regime that just used chemical weapons against its own people.
“Rouhani condemned the `violent scourge of terrorism.’ Yet, in the last three years alone, Iran has ordered, planned or perpetrated terrorist attacks in 25 cities in five continents.”
Abraham Sofaer, a former State Department legal adviser responsible for U.S.-Iran negotiations and author of the book, “Taking on Iran,” said that by pointing out Iran’s terrorist activities Netanyahu was providing a “much needed dose of reality.”
Rouhani, Sofaer said, as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council “must have seen and probably approved the many horrific things the government has done to Americans and Jews, as well as others. … They have been systematically killing people abroad.”
Noting that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been against the diplomatic overtures of Rouhani and has maintained a hardline approach towards the West, Sofaer suggested a way to undermine their credibility.
“They have thousands of fighters in Syria — including several commanders — and I could see supporting groups that are engaging them in Syria,” he said. “The guard has made itself very vulnerable there. The more casualties they take, the more they will lose in stature and credibility within Iran itself.”