UNITED NATIONS — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged foreign dignitaries Tuesday to view Iran’s latest diplomatic charm offensive with distrust and warned that Israel would act alone, if necessary, to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
“Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map,” Netanyahu said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly. “I want there to be no confusion on this point. Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”
Speaking just days after President Obama’s historic phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Netanyahu appealed to a gathering that included Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to cast a skeptical eye on Iran’s pledge to strike a nuclear deal. He said Tehran has repeatedly employed diplomatic outreach in the past to disguise its plans to build a nuclear bomb.
In contrast with Netanyahu’s uncompromising message and tacit threat of a military strike, Obama has delivered a more optimistic assessment on Iran and has said that he is determined to pursue a diplomatic solution to the standoff over the country’s nuclear program.
Although criticized immediately by the Iranian delegation, Netanyahu’s hard-line position could give Tehran incentive to make headway during international negotiations, which have proved fruitless in the past.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters after Netanyahu’s speech that “it is absolutely worth pursuing” a negotiated and “verifiable” resolution with Iran’s new president, who like his immediate predecessor has said that the nation’s nuclear program is not designed to build a bomb.
“The important measuring stick when it comes to pursuing this diplomatic opening with Iran is action — what actions are being taken by Iran that demonstrate that they are interested in fulfilling their obligations to the international community,” Carney said. “Words here are meaningful, but actions are most meaningful.”
In his speech, Netanyahu said that although Rouhani’s conciliatory rhetoric sets him apart from his confrontational predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both men remain committed to the goal of developing a nuclear bomb.
“Now I know Rouhani doesn’t sound like Ahmadinejad,” Netanyahu said. “But when it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the only difference between them is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing; Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”
An Iranian diplomat at the United Nations, Khodadad Seifi, responded swiftly, warning that “the Israeli prime minister had better not even think about attacking Iran, let alone planning for that.”
“Iran’s centuries-old policy of nonaggression must not be interpreted as its inability to defend itself,” said Seifi, who used the Jewish state’s name rather than the previously preferred “Zionist entity” terminology to refer to Israel.
Netanyahu’s address followed a week of intensive diplomatic exchanges between the United States and Iran, including a meeting of major powers that brought together Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at U.N. headquarters to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.
Rouhani, elected in June, has pledged to rebuild Tehran’s relationship with Washington and its Western allies, hoping that it would bring a swift end to the international sanctions that have badly damaged the Iranian economy. Obama and Rouhani have instructed their top diplomats to work with other world powers to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The United States, its European allies and Israel suspect that Iran is enriching uranium to fuel a nuclear weapons program. Iran maintains that it has no intention of building a nuclear bomb but wants an enrichment program to meet its energy needs. Israel possesses an undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal.
Netanyahu accused Rouhani, who served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, of having been the “mastermind” of a strategy to advance Tehran’s nuclear program “behind a smoke screen of diplomatic engagement and very smooth rhetoric.”
“He fooled the world once; now he thinks he can fool it again,” Netanyahu said Tuesday. “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellow cake and eat it, too.”
The Israeli leader recalled that the international community had once placed its hopes in the prospect of a diplomatic resolution to another nuclear crisis — this one involving North Korea.
In 2005, the George W. Bush administration reached an agreement with the North Korean government to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief, fuel and other commercial incentives. A year later, Netanyahu said, the North tested its first nuclear bomb.
The Israeli leader said a meaningful diplomatic solution would require the cessation of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Rouhani has defended Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium for civilian use.
Netanyahu said a deal would also have to include the transfer of enriched uranium out of Iran, as well as the dismantling of its nuclear infrastructure to eliminate its ability to produce plutonium and quickly start a weapons program.
In the meantime, Netanyahu said, the international community must maintain tough sanctions and a credible threat of force.
Seifi, the Iranian diplomat, said Netanyahu’s “inflammatory” remarks were calculated to “mislead” the General Assembly about Iran’s intentions, only this time “without [the aid of a] cartoon drawing,” a reference to the Israeli leader’s visual representation at the United Nations a year ago of what he described as Iran’s progress toward a bomb.
“All Iran’s nuclear activities are, and have always been, exclusively for peaceful purposes,” Seifi said. “We believe building mutual trust is possible only by resorting to the force of logic, not the logic of force. The solution is neither through threat nor sanctions.”
Wilson reported from Washington.