Netanyahu talks tough on Iran, leaves door open to ‘meaningful’ diplomatic solution

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 68th United Nations General Assembly on Oct. 1, 2013. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 68th United Nations General Assembly on Oct. 1, 2013. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The “credible military threat” against Iran that Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to hear while he was in the United States this week eventually emerged — from his own lips.

The Israeli prime minister, in a blunt speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, warned that Israel was ready to go it alone against Iran should it come close to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“I want there to be no confusion on this point,” Netanyahu said. “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone. Yet in standing alone, Israel will know that we will be defending many, many others.”

The warning came one day after Netanyahu met with President Obama at the White House and again sought assurances that the United States would continue to tighten the screws on Iran even as the two countries had their highest level of diplomatic engagement since the 1979 Islamist Revolution: a 15-minute phone call last Friday between Obama and Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani.

Netanyahu in his meeting with Obama told the U.S. leader that a two-pronged strategy of crippling economic sanctions and a credible military threat was the only way to peacefully resolve the standoff. Obama seemed to get the message.

“I’ve said before and I will repeat that we take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran that would destabilize the region and potentially threaten the United States of America,” Obama told reporters Monday.

Still, Netanyahu continued to insist throughout his American visit that Rouhani was not to be trusted –this despite warnings from certain quarters that his alarmism threatened to alienate the United States, which is pressing for a diplomatic accord with the Islamic Republic.

Netanyahu repeated the point in meetings Monday with Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.

The Senate committee embraced another of Netanyahu’s objectives for this trip: a pledge to intensify sanctions should it appear that the Iranians are using negotiations to buy time for their suspected nuclear program.

“Our resolve to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability remains unchanged and we will not hesitate from proceeding with further sanctions and other options to protect U.S. interests and ensure regional security,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee chairman, said in a statement. “While we welcome Iran’s diplomatic engagement, it cannot be used to buy time, avoid sanctions, and continue the march toward nuclear weapons capability.”

Netanyahu’s General Assembly speech was devoted almost entirely to exposing what he said was Rouhani’s “ruse” in presenting a more “smiling” countenance to the West and offering to reach an agreement.

His accusations were met with a fiery response from Mohammad Khazaee, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, who insisted that his country’s nuclear program was peaceful and delivered a warning of his own.

“The Israeli prime minister had better not think about attacking Iran, let alone planning it,” he said.

Despite such tough exchanges, there were signs that Netanyahu was resigned to a diplomatic initiative. He repeatedly qualified his call for for dismantling Iran’s nuclear program with the words “military” or “weapons” — an apparent nod to the fact that any diplomatic solution is likely to preserve Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program. He also explicitly embraced diplomacy, as long as it resulted in a comprehensive deal.

“He did not reject a diplomatic approach,” said Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director. “He had caveats.”

Those caveats reflected the major differences that remain between Obama and Netanyahu on the Iran issue. In his U.N. speech, Netanyahu laid out four requirements for a comprehensive deal; two of them — an end to all uranium enrichment and the removal from Iranian territory of all uranium stockpiles — are unlikely to be embraced by the West.

Western powers reportedly are ready to allow Iran to enrich at 3.5 percent — less than the 20 percent it now enriches and well short of the 90 percent required for weaponization.

Netanyahu’s two other requirements were the dismantling of infrastructure necessary for a so-called “breakout capacity” — including the underground facility at Qom and the advanced centrifuges at Natanz — and the stopping of all work at the heavy water reactor in Arak.

David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank with close ties to the Obama and Netanyahu governments, said such differences were less significant than the fact that Iran, Israel and the United States are all proclaiming support for a comprehensive deal.

“I’d rather be where we are now then where we were with [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad six months ago,” Makovksy said, referring to Rouhani’s rejectionist predecessor. “For all the heated words between Rouhani and Netanyahu, each side is saying we’ve got to do bigger sooner.”

In an interview with “60 Minutes,” Kerry said he believed a deal could be reached in less than the six months Rouhani envisioned in an interview last week with the Washington Post — depending on how forthcoming Rouhani is prepared to be.

“We need to have a good deal here, and a good deal means that it is absolutely accountable, failsafe in its measures to make certain this is a peaceful program,” Kerry said. “If it is a peaceful program and we can all see that, the whole world sees that, the relationship with Iran can change dramatically for the better and it can change fast.”

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