Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress on Tuesday, taking aim at Iran's nuclear program. The fallout from the speech, which was deeply polarizing in the United States and in Israel, is still being gauged. Netanyahu heaped invective on the regime in Tehran, likening its agenda to that of the extremist Islamic State, and called on U.S. politicians to question the point of talking to Iran — much to the chagrin of the Obama administration, which is keen on reaching an accord with Tehran.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the speech was "an insult to the intelligence of the United States."
Meanwhile, the Iranians have now had time to come up with a few of their own rebuttals. One major Iranian newspaper deemed the speech a "clown show," according to Britain's Guardian newspaper.
Others had more to say. "The world is happy with the progress in the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1," President Hassan Rouhani said at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, referring to his country's talks with a group of six world powers. "Only one aggressive and occupier regime [Israel] is angry with the talks because it sees its existence tied with war and occupation."
He went on to decry the supposed hypocrisy of Israel's position on Iran, which, unlike Israel, has no nuclear weapons (yet) and is a signatory of the United Nations' Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"People of the world and America are too smart to take advice from such a war-mongering regime… which has pursued, produced and stockpiled a large number of atomic bombs in violation of international laws and away from the eyes of international inspectors," Rouhani said, according to the Guardian.
The Iranian president's choice of words for Israel was predictable, at least as much as Netanyahu's own bluster was. The Islamic republic frequently criticizes Israel's occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinian civilians, including in the blockaded Gaza Strip.
Other prominent figures within Rouhani's government also responded to the Israeli prime minister. Iran's influential parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, said Netanyahu's speech was "a foul spectacle," and he rejected the idea, voiced by Netanyahu, that his country would want "to impose a militant Islamic empire" on the world.
"We are not and have never been seeking to build an empire, but our Islamic revolutionary values against the big powers’ imperialism and the cruel Israel have appealed to the hearts of Muslims," said Larijani, using time-tested Islamic republic rhetoric.
In an interview with NBC, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took issue with Netanyahu's version of the biblical tale of Esther. Before Congress, Netanyahu framed the story as an incident in which a Persian vizier threatened the fate of Jews, using it as a crude parable of the present.
"It is unfortunate that Mr. Netanyahu now totally distorts realities of today," Zarif said. "He even distorts his own scripture. If you read the Book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews."
Zarif went on to expound upon Iran's long history of tolerance and lectured Netanyahu on the three times in history that his nation has "saved the Jews" — that i,s twice in the ancient past and once in the last century:
It is truly, truly regrettable that bigotry gets to the point of making allegations against an entire nation which has saved Jews three times in its history: once during that time of a prime minister who was trying to kill the Jews [in the Book of Esther], and the king saved the Jews; again during the time of Cyrus the Great, where he saved the Jews from Babylon, and during the Second World War, where Iran saved the Jews.
Zarif, who was educated in the United States and spent the better part of a decade in New York as Iran's envoy to the United Nations, said that negotiations with the United States and its partners were proceeding well and that the two sides were close to a deal. Privately, he and other Iranian officials have said that their government presents a departure from the belligerence of Rouhani's predecessor, Holocaust-denying firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
That would mean toning down the Islamic republic's rhetorical animosity toward Israel. When confronted by NBC's Ann Curry about a tweet from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which claimed that the "barbaric wolf-like and infanticidal regime of Israel... has no cure but to be annihilated," Zarif awkwardly pushed back. He stressed that Iran has no ill will toward Jews but is opposed to the Israeli government.
"This [Israeli] regime is a threat. A regime that engages in the killing of innocent children, a regime that engages in acts of aggression. Iran has not invaded any other country. We have not threatened to use force," Zarif insisted. "Just exactly the opposite of Israel. Israel threatens to use force against Iran almost on a daily basis."
This ignores the footprint Iran does have in the region — Iranian proxies, including various Shiite militias, are engaged in conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. They are part of a larger struggle for geopolitical supremacy in the Middle East that has pitted Iran against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states.
Not unlike Netanyahu, though, much of the rhetoric of Iran's leaders is intended for domestic consumption. Many in the West may view the Islamic republic as an unsavory theocratic regime, but there are many competing forces within it. The country's hard-liners have long been at odds with Rouhani over his attempted rapprochement with the United States.
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a prominent Iranian politician aligned with the country's reformist camp, used the occasion of the Israeli prime minister's speech to attack Iranian opponents of a nuclear deal. During an address this week at Iran's Interior Ministry, Rafsanjani said Iranian hard-liners were "in harmony with Netanyahu."