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International Relations

Netanyahu: Don't be fooled by Iran's change of tone

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called the much-lauded "new tone" from Tehran little more than a charm offensive and said his country will stick to its demand that Iran give up its alleged nuclear weapons program.

Even before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly on Tuesday (01.10.2013), Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, had called on the United Nations to ignore attempts to cause "panic" by Israel.

"We don't expect anything but lies from Netanyahu," Zarif was quoted as saying by the Iranian ISNA news agency. It's hardly the "new tone" to come from Tehran that was recently praised by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and his US colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry. Apparently Zarif was reacting to Netanyahu's comments from the previous day when he had expressed his doubts over the US-Iranian thaw by saying that Iran was ready to "destroy" Israel.

Netanyahu's speech at the UN was marked by direct words. "For me the speech didn't have any surprises," Washington-based Middle East expert Khaled Elgindy told DW. "Iran was clearly the focus and Netanyahu clearly said: Don't be fooled.'"

Rouhani a 'wolf in sheep's clothing'

The Israeli prime minister used an old example: The only difference between the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his successor Hassan Rouhani was that the former was a wolf in wolf's clothing and the latter a wolf in sheep's clothing who "thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community."

Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed)

Netanyahu met Obama earlier and warned Washington not to trust Tehran too quickly

Netanyahu spent much of his speech criticizing Rouhani who one week before had spoke at the same podium and had in moderate words offered negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program. There almost was a sense of an indirect duel between the two. Netanyahu sought to undermine his opponent's credibility by saying that even if it appeared to be different, Rouhani was a loyal servant of his regime.

"Rouhani headed Iran's Supreme National Security Council from 1989 through 2003. During that time Iran's henchmen gunned down opposition leaders in a Berlin restaurant," Netanyahu said in his speech. "They murdered 85 people at the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. They killed 19 American soldiers by blowing up the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia."

For years, Iran and its nuclear program have been at the top of the list of Netanyahu's concerns and the Israeli leader said he believed that despite the charm offensive, Teheran's position had not changed, explained Natan Sachs of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute.

'Too tough' a speech?

"It was a tough speech, and there's always a danger with those tough speeches that they might seem unreasonably tough," Sachs said. "I think he would perhaps have benefited from emphasizing the positive changes in Iran."

Hassan Rouhani (photo: Newscom picture alliance)

Rouhani tried to strike a different tone from that of his predecessors

Netanyahu repeated Israel's demand that Iran completely give up its nuclear program before sanctions could be lifted. A White House spokesman said the United States regarded Israel's skeptical position as "completely justifiable." German Foreign Minister Westerwelle also expressed his understanding for Israel's position. Both though avoided explicitly adopting any of Netanyahu's demands.

"The role that Israel is playing is to set an extremely high bar that almost by definition cannot be met," Elgindy said. "I think that most of the negotiation partners would be content with results also below those high expectations."

International skepticism

Israel has always, in a sense, played the bad cop, Sachs said, "They are the ones who are skeptical, who have to be convinced." For Sachs, how the international community deals with Iran is more important than the Israeli reaction. Israel was the most vocal about the nuclear program, "but many others are very concerned; the US, Germany, and the Arab neighbors."

Netanyahu said Rouhani, as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005, "masterminded the strategy which enabled Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program behind a smoke screen of diplomatic engagement and very soothing rhetoric." He added that Israel would never accept an Iranian nuclear bomb.

Pressure from Israel and the threat to possibly destroy the Iranian nuclear program were important in order to maintain international support for the sanctions against Iran. "Surely Israel can sometimes be overly hawkish," Sachs said. "But without Israel's urging there would be much less of a sense of urgency around the world about Iran's nuclear weapons and it may have been too late by the time the world had acted on its own."

Allies and influence

How influential is Israel, how much weight do its words carry in Washington, which of course has to look not only at Iran but at the entire Middle East? Sachs said Israel "is closely connected to the US, has many allies and much influence here. Israel cannot play a direct role, but its indirect role is very important."

Should Israel act militarily, it could set back the Iranian's alleged nuclear weapons program but not eliminate it, Elgindy said.

"In the long run, the negotiations can reach much more than a military strike which would at the most delay the nuclear program but almost certainly not cancel it," he added. "And it might actually create more incentive for Iran to pursue it in the future."

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