At UN, Israel likely to stand alone against Iran

While Western powers appear ready to embrace Rouhani, who will speak later Tuesday, Netanyahu expected to warn next week against trusting new Iranian president

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at UN headquarters in New York City, September 23, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at UN headquarters in New York City, September 23, 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

This year’s United Nations General Assembly enters a critical phase Tuesday, with a speech by President Barack Obama and the first appearance on the world stage of Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, who is expected to attempt to convince the West of the Islamic Republic’s peaceful intentions.

As diplomacy takes center stage in New York, the US and Great Britain appear willing to thaw ties with the Islamist regime following a charm offensive by Rouhani, who in recent days has been keen to show his regime’s ostensible readiness to compromise in the nuclear standoff with the West.

Israel stands alone in its rejection of Rouhani’s overtures, arguing that Rouhani merely put a friendlier face on a rogue regime still bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s negotiation strategy is entirely consistent with Rouhani’s policy of ‘smile and enrich,’” stated an internal Israeli government document which surfaced Tuesday.

Screenshot from an interview Iranian President Hasan Rouhani gave to NBC News Wednesday September 18, 2013, his first to a US outlet since his election.
Screenshot from an interview Iranian President Hasan Rouhani gave to NBC News Wednesday September 18, 2013, his first to a US outlet since his election.

Obama’s address is scheduled for 5:00 p.m. (10 a.m. in New York). Rouhani is scheduled to speak at 1:00 a.m. (6 p.m. in New York). In between the two speeches, the two leaders could meet and exchange a handshake during a reception for heads of state hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon — but no official meeting has been scheduled so far.

Several top Israeli officials are already in New York, including International Relations and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in charge of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will land in the US on Sunday, where he will first meet Obama at the White House on Monday and then deliver the final address at this year’s General Assembly on Tuesday.

As he did during last year’s GA, during which he presented a cartoon bomb meant to warn the world of imminent Iranian nuclear weapons capability, Netanyahu will focus his remarks on the Iranian threat, arguing that Rouhani might agree to minor concessions in return to an easing of the sanctions against the regime but seeks to preserve the ability to build a nuclear weapon at any time.

A satellite image of Iran's Fordo uranium enrichment facility (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe)
A satellite image of Iran’s Fordo uranium enrichment facility (photo credit: AP/DigitalGlobe)

Amid a possible détente between the West and Iran — which has reportedly agreed to close down its Fordo uranium enrichment facility if the sanctions against its banking and oil industries are lifted — the prime minister will warn against any agreement that would allow the Iran to continue its nuclear ambitions.

“A bad agreement is worse than no agreement at all,” Netanyahu is expected to say, the New York Times reported on Sunday, quoting an Israeli official who was reading from a preliminary draft of Netanyahu’s speech. “Iran must not be allowed to repeat North Korea’s ploy to get nuclear weapons. … Just like North Korea before it, Iran professes to seemingly peaceful intentions; it talks the talk of nonproliferation while seeking to ease sanctions and buy more time for its nuclear program.”

The prime minister’s speech has yet to be finalized, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Monday. However, he confirmed that an explicit comparison with North Korea would likely be an integral part of it.

After years of deadlock, Pyongyang in 2005 agreed to suspend its nuclear program in return to assurances that the US would not attack the reclusive regime. However, on February 12, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un authorized an underground nuclear test, raising international concerns and condemnations.

Israeli leaders have drawn comparisons between Pyongyang and Tehran in the past.

“Have tough sanctions stopped North Korea? No. And the fact that they produced a nuclear explosion reverberates everywhere in the Middle East, and especially in Iran,” the prime minister told Jewish Agency officials a week after the North Korean nuclear test.

On April 16, Netanyahu said at an Independence Day reception for the foreign diplomatic corps: “We have recently seen the results of a wild regime that possesses nuclear weapons. We have also seen that heavy sanctions are not always effective against a sufficiently determined regime. Therefore, we have an obligation to ensure that this will not happen again. If Iran achieves nuclear weapons, this will change the world.” Seeing Kim’s blatant disregard for international obligations, despite crippling sanctions, offered an “additional perspective” on Israel’s position vis-à-vis Iran, he added.

The North Korea parallel has been mentioned in the past, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel, but “now it will take center stage.”

Iran’s Rouhani is seeking a deal similar to the one the West struck with North Korea eight years ago — one that reduces pressure on the regime and eases sanctions but nevertheless allows them to continue fostering their nuclear ambitions, the official said. “The international community was obviously not happy about North Korea achieving nuclear capability. So we will say to them: Do not make the same mistake. By raising the North Korean issue we’re raising a precedent that all the policymakers in international community are aware of.”

According to an internal document authorized by the highest levels of the Israeli government, “Iran seeks an arrangement in which sanctions are eased or lifted in exchange for cosmetic concessions, while allowing Iran to retain sufficient nuclear material and — no less importantly — nuclear infrastructure to complete its military nuclear program on short notice.”

Tehran is developing and installing “new and advanced centrifuges” for this purpose, states the document, published Tuesday by the Washington Post. “These centrifuges enable Iran to enrich – within weeks – even low enriched uranium to weapons grade highly enriched uranium, the most critical component in making nuclear weapons. This speedy enrichment capability will make timely detection and effective response to an Iranian nuclear breakout increasingly difficult, if not impossible.”

Therefore, even an Iranian cessation of high enrichment and an agreement to hand existing highly enriched uranium would be “insufficient,” the document states, as Tehran could quickly transform its low enriched uranium to weapons grade highly enriched uranium.

“The prime minister is aware that he’s spoiling the party,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel, referring to Jerusalem’s skepticism. “Many people in the international community want to believe in Rouhani’s charm offensive. But the prime minister believes firmly that we haven’t seen change of substance. And he will make his case even if there are those who believe that he’s spoiling the party, even if he risks sounding like a broken record. He believes that’s his moral obligation.”

Netanyahu and his aides will bring “relevant, current and timely information” to shed light on these issues to their meetings in Washington and New York next week, the official said, refusing to elaborate. “We have no expectation that we will convince everyone who wants to celebrate the party, but we won’t give up.”

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