Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s conciliatory rhetoric from the UN podium and in interviews with the US media is having an impact, a senior Israeli minister acknowledged on Wednesday, adding that he was concerned that the facts of Iran’s accelerating drive to nuclear weapons were being obscured amid the charm offensive.
“I’m more than worried. I’m distraught,” said Home Front Defense and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud), a member of Israel’s key decision-making security cabinet. “Rouhani’s language is having its effect.”
Rouhani pledged in a largely conciliatory debut speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday that Iran posed no international threat, opposed wars, and was not seeking nuclear weapons, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue a bitter response, at 1 a.m. Wednesday Israel-time, that slammed the Iranian president’s address as a “cynical… hypocritical… PR charade.”
Ahead of Netanyahu’s own trip to the General Assembly next week, Erdan said it now fell to the prime minister to refocus international attention “on the facts” behind the rhetoric, and that those facts made plain that Iran’s bid for nuclear weaponry had not been slowed, much less halted. “The centrifuges are spinning faster,” said Erdan in an Israel Radio interview. “There’s also a plutonium core.”
Erdan acknowledged a growing sense that Israel — whose delegates were ordered by Netanyahu to leave the UN hall for Rouhani’s speech — is increasingly isolated in its tough line on Iran, with President Barack Obama having pledged Tuesday to “test” the diplomatic route to solving the nuclear standoff. Erdan said he hoped Netanyahu’s US visit, “including his meetings with international leaders, will have an effect.” The prime minister is to meet with Obama at the White House early next week.
In Erdan’s reading, the fact that Rouhani was elected, and that he is speaking out in moderate tones, is a direct consequence of Iran’s urgent imperative to heal its economy by getting international sanctions lifted. But the sanctions, the minister said, have not slowed the nuclear program. “There’s no change.”
Rouhani could have offered at least some step in his speech “connected to the [relevant] UN resolutions [on Iran's unsanctioned nuclear program] or to the IAEA report on the military characteristics of the program. But there was nothing,” said Erdan. “He even refused to shake Obama’s hand. Remember, he’s not the one who makes the decisions [on the nuclear program],” said Erdan. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the only one who matters where that is concerned, “and he has not given the word” for genuine change.
As things stand, said Erdan, Iran poses “an existential threat” not only to Israel, but to the world.
He also said that Rouhani earlier this week presided over a military parade which featured a Shehab-3 missile truck bearing the slogan “Israel must be destroyed.” And he lamented that, although Rouhani made comments in a CNN interview Tuesday condemning the Holocaust (without relating to its scope), he was “not pushed hard enough” on the issue.
Other Likud leaders echoed Erdan’s themes Wednesday. While agreeing that the Iranian leader “didn’t deny the Holocaust” in the CNN appearance, Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz said during an Israel Radio interview that Rouhani “didn’t condemn those who have denied it,” including previous Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian politicians.
Ze’ev Elkin, Deputy Foreign Minister, told Army Radio that just because Rouhani recognized that the Holocaust occurred doesn’t mean Iran is “enlightened and cultivated,” since “Iranian spiritual leaders who have denied the Holocaust are still in place.”
“I am not a historian and when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust it is the historians that should reflect,” Rouhani said during his interview with Christiane Amanpour. “But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable.”
Steinitz, who was at the United Nations as part of Israel’s delegation to the UN General Assembly, told reporters that Rouhani is playing a “game of deception” with regards to Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
“We heard a lot of new rhetoric but zero new steps or even zero new commitments to meet the UN Security Council resolutions [on the nuclear issue],” Steinitz noted.
Steinitz and Erdan also defended Netanyahu’s decision to order the Israeli delegation to leave the hall for Rouhani’s speech, a move criticized by Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) as “a mistake” that made Israel look like “a perennial rejectionist.”