NEW YORK — Israel will act on its own if necessary to stop Iran attaining nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.
There should be no confusion over this, Netanyahu stressed in a calm, gimmick-free address, warning that “Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us out.”
“If Israel is forced to stand alone” against that threat, “Israel will stand alone,” he said, though it would know that it was also defending others.
The prime minister, who a day earlier sat alongside Barack Obama as the US president explained that he was intent on testing diplomacy as a means to thwart Iran, did not dismiss the diplomatic-sanctions route. “We all want to give diplomacy with Iran a chance to succeed,” he said. Indeed, he went on, sanctions had put Iran “on the ropes.” If the world wanted to stop Iran peacefully, he pleaded, “don’t let up the pressure. Keep it up!”
But the declared commitment to act alone to thwart Iran in a last resort appeared to reflect Netanyahu’s concern that the international community, and notably the Obama administration, might not take military action in good time if all peaceful avenues failed.
Obama told Netanyahu Monday that the US was engaging with Iran “clear-eyed,” and the Israeli prime minister offered curt advice in that context. He urged the international community to deal with Iran on the basis not of the Reagan-esque “trust and verify,” but on the principles of “mistrust, dismantle and verify.”
He cautioned against the premature lifting of sanctions, set out the steps he deemed necessary to deprive Iran of a nuclear weapons capability, and appeared to differ with Obama on the extent of a nuclear capacity with which Iran could be safely entrusted. While the US president has indicated a willingness to allow Iran some kind of “peaceful” access to nuclear energy, Netanyahu warned that even if Iran were restricted to enriching uranium to 3%, ostensibly for peaceful purposes, that would still leave it the capacity to enrich to the levels necessary for nuclear weapons.
Early in the speech, Netanyahu took time to argue that Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, whose outreach to the West from the same podium a week earlier culminated in a phone conversation with Obama last Friday, was deceiving the West and had a history of such deception. He quoted from a book written by Rouhani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, and said the president had bragged about masterminding “the strategy which enabled Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program behind a smoke screen of diplomatic engagement.”
For all Rouhani’s “very soothing rhetoric,” the only difference between him and his predecessor, said Netanyahu, was that while
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was “a wolf in wolf’s clothing, Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing — a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community... I wish I could believe Rouhani. But I don’t.”
Netanyahu, the final world leader to address the 68th United Nations General Assembly, ridiculed Rouhani for speaking from the UN podium about Iranian democracy, when “the regime that he represents executes political dissidents by the hundreds and jails them by the thousands.”
And he countered Rouhani’s assertion that Iran had “never chosen
deceit and secrecy,” by recalling that “in 2002 Iran was caught red-handed secretly building an underground centrifuge facility in Natanz. And then in 2009 Iran was again caught red-handed secretly building a huge underground nuclear facility for uranium enrichment in a mountain near Qom.”
Rouhani claimed that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons, Netanyahu noted. “Any of you believe that?” he asked the well-filled hall. In fact, he said, intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as Iran is building, and with which he said it will bring the US into range within three or four years, have only “one purpose: to carry nuclear warheads.” Iran, he said flatly, “is developing nuclear weapons.”
Since Rouhani’s election, he stressed, the “vast and feverish effort” to reach the bomb, “has continued unabated.” Iran wants to be in a position to rush forward to build nuclear bombs before the international community can detect it and much less prevent it.” Only sanctions and a credible military threat could peacefully hold it back.
Netanyahu said Rouhani had been elected to “smile a lot,” pay “lip-service to democracy,” offer “meaningless concessions,” and “ensure that Iran retains sufficient nuclear material and sufficient nuclear infrastructure to race to the bomb at a time it chooses to do so”.– while, crucially, getting sanctions lifted. “It’s a ploy… He fooled the world once, now he thinks he can fool it again.”
In a rare play on words in an otherwise grave address, he added: “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake, and eat it too.”
Comparing Iran’s weapons drive to that of North Korea, and quoting a New York Times editorial that erroneously hailed the success of diplomacy in thwarting North Korea, he warned: “A nuclear-armed Iran in the Middle East wouldn’t be another North Korea. It would be another 50 North Koreas.” Cameras flashed to the North Korean delegation in the hall, looking rather glum.
Netanyahu acknowledged that some people believe he is exaggerating the Iranian threat. “Sure, they know that Iran’s regime leads these chants, ‘Death to America, Death to Israel,’ that it pledges to wipe Israel off the map. But they think that this wild rhetoric is just bluster for domestic consumption. Have these people learned nothing from history? The last century has taught us that when a radical regime with global ambitions gets awesome power, sooner or later its appetite for aggression knows no bounds. That’s the central lesson of the 20th century. And we cannot forget it. The world may have forgotten this lesson. The Jewish people have not.”
He added: “Iran’s fanaticism is not bluster. It’s real. The fanatic regime must never be allowed to arm itself with nuclear weapons. I know that the world is weary of war. We in Israel, we know all too well the cost of war. But history has taught us that to prevent war tomorrow, we must be firm today.”
A “meaningful” diplomatic solution, he specified, would require four elements: “First, cease all uranium enrichment. This is called for by several Security Council resolutions. Second, remove from Iran’s territory the stockpiles of enriched uranium. Third, dismantle the infrastructure for nuclear breakout capability, including the underground facility at Qom and the advanced centrifuges in Natanz. And, four, stop all work at the heavy water reactor in Iraq aimed at the production of plutonium. These steps would put an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program and eliminate its breakout capability.”
In addition, he advised against leaving Iran with a “residual capacity to enrich uranium,” because that, too, he said, could be abused to build a bomb. He quoted what he said was a Rouhani speech from 2005: “‘A county that could enrich uranium to about 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent. Having fuel cycle capability virtually means that a country that possesses this capability is able to produce nuclear weapons.’ Precisely,” said Netanyahu.
He urged the international community to reject any partial deals that would ease sanctions in exchange for cosmetic concessions, and only agree to lift sanctions when Iran fully dismantled its program. The world has Iran “on the ropes,” he said. “If you want to knock out Iran’s nuclear weapons program peacefully, don’t let up the pressure. Keep it up!”
Finally, Netanyahu spoke of how Israel would act if all else failed. The Jewish state “will never acquiesce” to nuclear arms in the hands of Iran, “a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us out. He warned: “Against such a threat, Israel will have no choice but to defend itself. I want there to be no confusion on this point. 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.”
Toward the end of his address, Netanyahu turned briefly to the Palestinian peace process, promising a readiness for “historic compromise” in the cause of genuine, enduring peace. But he immediately stressed, still plainly with Iran uppermost in mind, that he would “never compromise on the security of my people and of my country, the one and only Jewish state.”