President Barack Obama emphasized diplomacy at the United Nations Tuesday as a way to convince Iran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to emphasize in his remarks next Tuesday the need for continued sanctions as the way to achieve that goal.
Those apparently contradictory positions have alarmed some observers who fear that Israel might be alone in insisting that the military option remain on the table to convince Iran to give up its nuclear programs.
“It’s a very dangerous and very awkward situation for Netanyahu to be perceived as the only naysayer and warmonger,” Dan Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, told The New York Times. “He has to try and find the right balance between being cautious and warning the world that it should not fall for any of these ruses, but at the same time to be seen to give it a chance and to welcome it if it happens.”
But others insist that Israel and the U.S. are on the same page.
“The U.S. says it wants to keep Iran’s feet to the fire,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We have been told by American officials that … the administration is open to dialogue [with Iranian leaders] but only when there is delivery [of its promises]. It would be a mistake to send a wrong message that would indicate we are in any way falling into the charm offensive [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani used in the past when he was Iran’s [chief nuclear] negotiator. He used it to obfuscate the realities.”
Obama said as much when he told the General Assembly that Iran’s recent “conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.”
He was referring to Rouhani’s statement that Iran does not intend to develop nuclear weapons and wishes to resolve its dispute with Western nations, which believe Iran is intent on developing nuclear bombs. Years of negotiations with the West — most recently in April — have failed to end the impasse. Iran has continued to insist that it is enriching uranium for the sole purpose of peaceful energy production.
But Netanyahu signaled that he wasn’t buying Rouhani’s “charm offensive” by instructing the Israeli delegation to walkout of Rouhani’s speech to the General Assembly, just as it had last year when then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the world body.
“The government’s policy in Tehran toward Israel has not changed,” Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv. “Iran thinks that soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb.”
He suggested that Iran was trying to hoodwink the West into believing it is ready to resolve the crisis while its efforts to build nuclear weapons continue. Although Israel is open to a diplomatic solution, Netanyahu added, it “will not be fooled by half-measures that merely provide a smokescreen for Iran’s continual pursuit of nuclear weapons — and the world should not be fooled either. …
“Like North Korea before it, Iran will try to remove sanctions by offering cosmetic concessions, while preserving its ability to rapidly build a nuclear weapon at a time of its choosing.”
In his remarks to the UN General Assembly Tuesday, Rouhani insisted the Iran is a peace loving country and that “nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran and are counter to our ethical and religious convictions.”
Regarding the future, he said that in his country’s August election “the Iranian people voted for the discourse of hope and moderation at home and abroad” and he called for “a political solution for the nuclear dossier of Iran.”
Obama told the General Assembly that he had directed Secretary of State John Kerry to conduct direct negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program.
Kerry was expected to participate in a meeting Thursday between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.
Fred Lazin, a professor of politics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who is now a visiting scholar at New York University, said Netanyahu’s “hardline approach” is to be expected in light of Iranian threats to “wipe Israel off the map.
“But the most significant thing is the change in tone [from Iran],” he said. “Whether that is serious is an open question. They are interested in negotiating with the U.S., and Israel should probably not want to block that. But at the same time Israel should warn that you can’t trust them and let them pull the wool over your eyes.”
Lazin hastened to add: “I don’t think the U.S. is going to sell Israel out. It equally doesn’t want Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb because that will affect Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in terms of them wanting to acquire nuclear weapons.”
Iran is seeking to renew negotiations over its nuclear program in a bid to ease economic sanctions imposed on it by the international community. The Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions. The U.S. and its allies have imposed even more. Rouhani, said to be the most moderate of the candidates in Iran’s recent presidential election, has said he is trying to resolve the nuclear arms crisis to end the sanctions, which are reportedly having a crippling impact on the country’s economy and its people.
Obama acknowledged in his UN speech that “roadblocks may prove to be too great,” but he insisted that the “diplomatic path must be tested.”
A resolution of the nuclear issue, Obama added, “could serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship – one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said “nobody knows whether this [Iran’s diplomatic overtures] is real or not. Bibi’s [Netanyahu’s] reaction is a function of the basic principle of where you stand in life has a lot to do with where you sit; Israelis can’t afford a huge margin of error.”
In his speech next week, Netanyahu will reportedly demand that Iran halt all enrichment of uranium and agree to the removal of all uranium it has already enriched; dismantle its nuclear facility near Qum and its new generation of centrifuges at another site, Natanz; and stop construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak.
But Miller said all of those demands are not likely to be met and that if Israel continues to insist on them, “it is not going to have a deal.
“There is a need to accommodate what Israel needs and requires,” he said. “To try to permanently cancel the Iranian nuclear program will not succeed. The best that can be done is to keep them several years away from developing a nuclear capacity. Even if they stopped enriching, they could always resume because they now know how to do it. … So we have to buy time, a lot of time, and then wait for changes after the passing of the extreme leader and societal pressures for change. We have to be sober about what ultimately can be achieved.”
But time is not on Iran’s side because the sanctions are having a major impact, according to David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.
“The Iranians feel a sense of urgency and know that small strides will not lift the major sanctions,” he said. “Iran feels more of a sense of urgency to move on this issue than people in the American administration may have thought. The question is whether the new tone is sufficient to lead to a breakthrough in negotiations. It’s clear that people want to test it — there is no sense of a romance here.”