As It Makes Overtures to Iran, U.S. Strives to Reassure Israel
As the Obama administration embarks on a highly visible diplomatic overture to Iran, White House officials are engaged in a quieter, behind-the-scenes effort to reassure Israel that they will not fall for the charms of Iran’s new president by prematurely easing pressure on his government to curb its nuclear program.
In private conversations with Israeli officials and a few public statements, administration officials have emphasized that they remain skeptical of Iran’s intentions on the nuclear program, and that they will judge Iran by its actions, not by the conciliatory words of its newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani. In advance of his arrival in New York next week for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Rouhani has signaled a willingness to negotiate an agreement over the future of Iran’s nuclear program.
But the White House’s reassurances did not prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel from issuing a harsh condemnation of Mr. Rouhani this week, presaging a potential showdown with President Obama over how to deal with Iran, after a period in which the two leaders appeared finally to be in sync.
Amid news of an exchange of letters between Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani, and fresh discussion in Washington of negotiations that could lift sanctions against Iran, Mr. Netanyahu’s office dismissed as “media spin” a raft of statements by Mr. Rouhani about the peaceful goals of Iran’s nuclear program and his willingness to engage in diplomacy.
“There is no need to be fooled by the words,” said a lengthy Israeli statement issued late Thursday in response to Mr. Rouhani’s NBC News interview. “The test is not in what Rouhani says, but in the deeds of the Iranian regime, which continues to advance its nuclear program with vigor while Rouhani is being interviewed.”
Mr. Netanyahu, who has described Mr. Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” has stepped up his longstanding campaign against Iranian nuclear development in recent days, and plans to make it the focus of a meeting with Mr. Obama in Washington on Sept. 30 and a speech to the General Assembly the next day.
While American officials have repeatedly told their Israeli counterparts that they would be cautious in their dealings with the Iranian president, the White House has also made clear that it has an obligation to test whether Mr. Rouhani’s expressions of interest in diplomacy are genuine.
“We certainly recognize and appreciate Israel’s significant concerns about Iran, given the threats that have been made against Israel and the outrageous comments that have come out of Iran for many years about Israel,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Friday, previewing the message that Mr. Obama will deliver to the United Nations next Tuesday, a week earlier than Mr. Netanyahu.
“There’s not an open-ended window for diplomacy,” Mr. Rhodes said. “But we do believe there is time and space for diplomacy.”
Washington and Jerusalem both want to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but have often disagreed on the timetable and strategy for doing so. Israel, which sees a nuclear Iran as a dire threat to its existence, has pressed for a more forceful military threat. The United States, while stressing that all options are on the table, has urged Israel to give diplomacy and sanctions more time.
Mr. Rouhani’s election has clearly intrigued the White House. Senior officials said that unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he seemed to have the authority from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to negotiate on the nuclear issue. He also has a broad political mandate in Iran, officials said.
“It’s certainly different perspectives looking at the same picture,” said Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former Netanyahu aide. “Israel is clearly focused on Iranian action, and the messages in Washington seem more hopeful about Iranian intentions.”
Since Mr. Netanyahu’s United Nations speech last year laying out his red lines on Iran, and especially since Mr. Obama’s visit to Israel in March, the two countries have seemed in alignment. But many Israeli leaders and analysts saw Mr. Obama’s zigzag response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons as a bad omen for his resolve in stopping Iran.
“Netanyahu’s words were most likely meant for the ears of the members of Congress, so they will not let Obama get carried away by Rouhani’s overtures,” Ron Ben-Yishai, a journalist, wrote in an analysis published on Ynet, an Israeli news site. “The Israelis are also telling their American counterparts that just like in the case of the Syrian crisis, a credible military threat is needed in order to get results on the diplomatic track.”
Mr. Netanyahu said last week that “the message in Syria will also be heard very well in Iran,” and that “the world needs to make sure that anyone who uses weapons of mass destruction will pay a heavy price for it.”
On Thursday, he said again that “the international community must increase the pressure on Iran” until it halts uranium enrichment, removes enriched uranium from the country, dismantles the Fordo nuclear plant and stops “the plutonium track.”
In Washington, a leading pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, issued a memo on Friday, echoing much of Mr. Netanyahu’s plan. It added that Iran must allow inspectors into a military plant at Parchin where, it said, Iran tests explosives. “Pleasant rhetoric will not suffice,” the group said. “If Iran fails to act, sanctions must be increased.”
Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, said in an interview published Friday that the Iranians were six months away from developing a bomb, and that “there is no more time to hold negotiations.” He told the right-leaning newspaper Yisrael Hayom that Washington’s promise of “all options on the table” had not been enough.
Israeli officials and experts differed on what to make of Mr. Rouhani’s recent statements and actions in advance of his American trip. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said there was a contradiction in many of his statements.
“He’s saying, ‘We’ve never wanted a nuclear weapon, we’ll never produce a nuclear weapon,' ” Mr. Oren said. “But then he says, ‘Time is running out for a negotiated solution.’ ”
Emily Landau of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University said she saw “no indication of any willingness to reverse course on the nuclear front,” citing 1,000 new-generation centrifuges that enrich uranium faster and are more durable, as well as Mr. Rouhani’s refusal to consider suspending uranium enrichment.
But Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said Friday that there was a chance Mr. Rouhani was promising real change and that a meeting between him and Mr. Obama would be positive for Israel.
Mr. Netanyahu did not limit his criticism of Mr. Rouhani to the nuclear issue. He also addressed Mr. Rouhani’s ducking of a question about whether he, like his predecessor, believes the Holocaust was a myth. Mr. Rouhani answered, “I’m not a historian; I’m a politician.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s statement declared, “It does not take a historian to recognize the existence of the Holocaust — it just requires being a human being.”