Netanyahu’s tough talk on Iran may find a less receptive audience


McClatchy Foreign Staff

A year ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu captured international attention when he drew a red line on a cartoon likeness of a bomb during a speech at the United Nations on Iran’s nuclear program.

When he addresses the world body on Tuesday, a day after meeting President Barack Obama, he will face a more daunting task.

A diplomatic offensive at the United Nations last week by Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, topped off by Rouhani’s phone conversation Friday with Obama have challenged Netanyahu to get his message across in a changed diplomatic landscape.

With Washington moving to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear program, Israeli officials have voiced concern about a possible weakening of economic sanctions and postponement of any military threat that could stop what they say is Tehran’s steady advance toward a nuclear bomb.

Officials say Netanyahu will present evidence of continued Iranian efforts to attain a nuclear weapon and urge the U.S. and other nations not to be taken in by what has been dubbed here as Rouhani’s charm offensive.

“I will tell the truth in the face of the sweet-talk and offensive of smiles,” Netanyahu said Saturday night before boarding his plane to New York.

On Sunday Israel’s Shin Bet security agency announced that it had arrested a Belgian national of Iranian origin who was suspected of spying for Iran. The agency said the man, Ali Mansouri, 58, carried photos of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and had been promised $1 million to set up companies in Israel on behalf of the Iranian intelligence services for operations “against Israeli and Western interests.”

But Israeli commentators said that Netanyahu will have to work hard to offset the impression left by Rouhani in his U.N. speech and other appearances, where he projected the image of a peace-seeking moderate.

“What Rouhani did changed the rules of the game,” said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University. “When (former Iranian president Mahmoud) Ahmedinejad was in charge it was pretty simple: what you see is what you get. Now you have a much more experienced diplomat who’s coming up with a plan to help Iran recover economically, to launder Iran’s nuclear program and turn Iran into a much more acceptable diplomatic player. The good guys-bad guys dichotomy is becoming irrelevant, and Netanyahu should think of something else.”

Writing in the mass circulation Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist, said that in his phone conversation with Rouhani, Obama had “folded the flag which Netanyahu had waved to Israelis and the world, the basis of his diplomatic existence.”

Netanyahu has argued for stepped up sanctions on Iran, backed by a “credible military threat” which he said proved itself in the case of Syria, which under threat of a U.S. strike agreed to international control of its chemical weapons.

The Israeli leader has urged that Iran be pressed to halt all uranium enrichment, remove enriched uranium from the country, dismantle the Fordo nuclear plant and stop “the plutonium track” to a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu’s predicament is that “he may well be right substantively, but he encounters a world that wants to be charmed by Iran and doesn’t want to fight if Rouhani offers hope,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “If he walks into the trap of repeating the Israeli refrain in the face of an unwilling audience, it is not going to be well received. Nobody is interested in spoilers.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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