Israeli and mainstream American Jewish leaders are deeply concerned, whether they say it publicly or not, that President Obama is being snookered by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive. And the stakes could not be higher.
Once again Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will be cast as party spoiler when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. But by then his remarks, sure to caution against falling for Iran’s gentle rhetoric masking a firm commitment to continue its race for nuclear arms, may be too late. Netanyahu is expected to draw an analogy between North Korea and Iran. In 2005, professing peaceful intentions, North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear efforts for a U.S. promise not to attack. But despite tough economic sanctions, Korean leader Kim Jong-un gave permission for an underground nuclear test earlier this year. So much for promises from autocrats.
In Iran, where Ayatollah Khamenei holds the apt title of supreme leader, it was Rouhani who served as the chief nuclear negotiator a decade ago. And he later wrote of how he lied to the West to stall for time for the nuclear work that Iran claims is for peaceful means but the U.S., Israel and much of the West views as intended to produce nuclear weapons.
“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran,” wrote Rouhani, “we were installing equipment in parts of the nuclear conversion facility in Isfahan. By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there.”
Beware, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials say, asserting that Rouhani is following his same sweet-talking playbook today and shows no indication of backing down from a firm commitment to continue what Iran benignly calls its “nuclear program.” While he often is described in the Western press as a moderate, the Iranian president continues to portray Israelis as “warmongers” who bring “instability” to the region, and when asked last week by an American journalist if the Holocaust was a fact, he replied, “I’m not a historian, I’m a politician.”
It was that refusal to acknowledge the truth that helped convince an association of Iranian American Jews to decline Rouhani’s invitation to meet with him in the U.S. this week (see story on page TK). “When the president had a chance to redeem himself on the question of the Holocaust, he did not do that,” one of the leaders told us.
Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, had a similar response.
Referring to Rouhani as “a master of charm and deception,” Hoenlein said that by not acknowledging that the Holocaust happened, the Iranian leader “sends a clear signal to everybody.”
But signals are only clear if they are interpreted that way. In recent weeks, facing challenges presented by Syria, with its escalating civil war that has introduced chemical warfare, and Iran as it works to produce nuclear arms, President Obama has appeared to vacillate on a mode of action. His embrace of the Russian plan, however impractical and improbable, of identifying, gathering and destroying Syria’s chemical warfare supply, seemed to give him a way out of his plan to politely bomb Syria. Now Rouhani’s overtures could have the U.S. agreeing to talks that Israel fears would provide cover for Iran to continue its nuclear race.
Perception is reality in international affairs, and appearing to stand down to bullies only emboldens the bullies, like Russia’s Putin and Iran’s Khamenei, to push harder. President Obama tried to walk a delicate line in his UN speech this week, open to engagement with Tehran while warning that the U.S. is prepared to use force to defend its allies in the region.
Did he mean it when he said the U.S. would not “tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction?” More importantly, do Syria, Russia and Iran believe him?