Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vilified the newly-elected president of Iran, claiming in an interview that he should not be trusted. The Israeli leader also referred to Iran’s Supreme Leader as heading a “cult,” and a “messianic, apocalyptic, radical regime” intent on the nuclear destruction of Israel and the United States.
Netanyahu’s tough tone was in sharp contrast to the charm offensive offered by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week, who ended a visit to New York by speaking directly to President Obama. The call marked the first breakthrough in Iranian-US relations in more than three decades. But for Israel, Iran remains a formidable foe that presents a real threat to the Jewish State’s existence. While the United States is Israel’s closest ally, Netanyahu made clear in meetings and speeches this week that he is worried about an outreach to Rouhani.
“Iran already has missiles to reach Israel. They’re developing intercontinental ballistic missiles to reach you,” Netanyahu said In a Wednesday interview with NBC Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell. “Their sole purpose is to arm them with a nuclear payload. You don’t want to be in a position where this messianic, apocalyptic, radical regime that has these wild ambitions but a nice spokesman gets away with building the weapons of mass death.”
For years, the international community has suspected that Iran’s nuclear energy program could be a cover for a weapons program in which enriched uranium or plutonium could be transferred for bombs. Rouhani has said repeatedly that his country, a member of the Non Proliferation Treaty, would never develop nuclear weapons and his foreign minister on Sunday said that the country would allow international inspectors to tour its nuclear facilities as part of ongoing negotiations. Rouhani and Obama agreed by phone that the nuclear program would be central to diplomatic talks spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Rouhani arrived in New York last week for the United Nations General Assembly less than two months after being sworn into office. Vastly distinguishing himself from his predecessors, Rouhani was able to bridge a decades-long divide with the United States that culminated in the phone call last Friday with Obama. In the past few weeks, Rouhani has wished his country’s Jewish citizens a happy Rosh Hashanah, availed himself to western media, and yes – smiled a lot, which Netanyahu called “step one” in a strategy to deceive the West.
Netanyahu argued that “a difference in style doesn’t make a difference in policy,” and that Rouhani, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before him, has harbored nuclear ambitions. Israel is one of just a handful of countries, including India and Pakistan, that has not signed the nonproliferation treaty and is widely believed to be the only nuclear state in the Middle East.
Asked if Obama erred in speaking with Rouhani, Netanyahu dodged, focusing instead on evidence that could point to a nuclear weapons effort. He called for a full dismantling of Iran’s nuclear facilities, which at the moment could be used to produce nuclear energy when ready.
The Obama administration, working with European allies, are hopeful they can make progress with Iran. Kerry acknowledged in an interview over the weekend that “it’s possible to have a deal” and that “the relationship with Iran can change dramatically for the better and it can change fast.” For Iran, renewed ties to the West could mean an end to years of crushing economic sanctions and the possibility of a robust economic recovery.
Netanyahu, whose hard-right Likud party has struggled to keep together a governing coalition, has worked to pressure Western governments to maintain a tough stance against Iran. Obama, who has looked for an opening with Iran since his election in 2008, nevertheless said he would keep all options on the table to safeguard U.S. interests. He met with Netanyahu Monday in Washington.
Asked if the election of the moderate-backed Rouhani represented a desire for change among the Iranian people, Netanyahu waded into the complex world of Iranian politics, While Rouhani was elected and holds the title of president, the Islamic Republic is also under the rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. “They’re governed not by Rouhani. They’re governed by Ayatollah Khamenei. He heads a cult. That cult is wild in its ambitions and its aggression.”