Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has his work cut out for him as he prepares for his speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, October 1.
As was the case last year, the danger to the world presented by Iran’s nuclear-weapon ambitions will be the main focus of Netanyahu’s speech.
However, unlike last year, when Netanyahu generated enormous media attention by holding up a cartoon of a bomb at the US General Assembly and drawing an actual as well as proverbial “redline,” this year the prime minister will have a more difficult job convincing the world that Iran is a threat to regional stability.
In part, this is because Netanyahu is up against a formidable Iranian opponent. Iran’s president is no longer the crude Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had no qualms about spouting the most abhorrent views in public, from Holocaust denial and threatening to “wipe Israel off the map” to 9/11 conspiracy theories and referring to the US as the “Great Satan.” Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Republic’s new president, is more sophisticated and duplicitous.
When asked in a recent interview with NBC’s Ann Curry, for instance, whether he, like Ahmadinejad, believed the Holocaust was a myth, Rouhani sidestepped the question answering, “I’m not a historian.
I’m a politician.”
However, this evasiveness was barely mentioned by the media, eclipsed as it was by the larger charm offensive launched by Rouhani both in the NBC interview and in other forums since he replaced Ahmadinejad in August. The Iranian president used most of the air time provided by NBC, for instance, to state that Iran would never develop nuclear weapons (though the International Atomic Energy Agency, in consecutive reports since 2011, has shown that Iran is involved in activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device”) and that he had “complete authority” to personally negotiate a nuclear deal with the US and other Western powers (even though it is common knowledge that Ayatollah Khamenei calls the shots in the Islamic Republic).
Rouhani has also deployed that ultimate media device – Twitter – to broadcast terse messages of peace and goodwill. Before leaving for the UN General Assembly, for instance, Rouhani tweeted, “Ready for constructive engagement w/world to show real image of great Iranian nation.”
In New York, there is quite a bit of “buzz” surrounding the possibility that US President Barack Obama and Rouhani might “accidentally” run into each other at the UN and even be photographed shaking hands. Some “analysts and former officials” quoted by The New York Times said a face-to-face meeting between the two could be “pivotal.”
But it is clear that Rouhani’s efforts to soften up the West are motivated by a determination to soften the crippling financial sanctions so effectively imposed under US leadership. The Iranian economy is suffering from rampant inflation, skyrocketing unemployment and a severe shortage of goods. Rouhani is under tremendous political pressure at home to bring economic relief. And if the present economic recession continues, we might see Iranians taking to the streets in protest.
That’s why it is so crucial now, at this juncture in relations with Iran, that the P5+1 world powers stand tough against the Islamic Republic. There is a real danger that these world powers – all of whom are rightly averse to launching a military attack on Iran – will be so carried away by the prospect of a diplomatic solution that they will cut a bad deal with the Iranians. Iran will get sanctions lifted while being able to retain at least some capability to continue to manufacture nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu’s job is to convince the relevant powers that notwithstanding Rouhani’s sophisticated charm offensive, words are not enough. Only concrete steps such as getting rid of enriched uranium, dismantling the nuclear facility in Qom and halting its plutonium program – all under close international supervision – will justify the lifting of sanctions. Until then, Rouhani’s charm offensive is nothing but empty rhetoric.