Netanyahu’s mission: Setting parameters for Obama’s Iran diplomacy

It’s too late to stop the US president engaging with Rouhani; what the PM will attempt is to ensure that Iran cannot access anything more than ‘peaceful nuclear energy’

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

NEW YORK — “Any miscalculation of one’s position, and of course, of others, will bear historic damages; a mistake by one actor will have negative impact on all others.” These words were spoken Tuesday by President Hasan Rouhani, but they aptly reflect what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently thinking about the thawing relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States of America.

Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t mind standing alone in his opposition to the Iranian overtures, and that he will continue to pour cold water on the budding détente between Tehran and Washington. He seems to embrace being the sole voice of dissent to a Western chorus that is willing to test Iran’s sincerity, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the prime minister makes a point about being a party-pooper during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.

It has become a tradition for Netanyahu to insert some sort of gimmick into his major speeches to draw attention, be it a visual aid such as last year’s UN cartoon bomb or rhetorical shtick like the similarly awkward “nuclear duck” he discussed in a March 2012 speech to AIPAC delegates. So internet meme-makers, be prepared. A possible motif for his speech at the UN this week could be an image of Rouhani barely a week ago, presiding over a military parade which featured Shehab-3 missile trucks bearing anti-American messages and the slogan “Israel must be destroyed.” “And I’m the party-pooper?” Netanyahu might ask.

The unchanged anti-US and anti-Israel slogans at the military parade were first highlighted by Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the UN and longtime Netanyahu confidant. Gold, the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is accompanying the prime minister on this trip, and is likely helping Netanyahu finalize the text for Tuesday’s speech, together with the prime minister’s outgoing senior adviser and incoming ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer.

Netanyahu and his speechwriters, as of Sunday, had said very little about its content, beyond that it will compare the Iranian regime to North Korea and warn of the inherent dangers in striking deals with rogue states. The prime minister will almost certainly mention the fact that Rouhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator in 2003 and has reportedly prided himself on fooling the West into believing that the program had been halted. He may also highlight Rouhani’s place at the heart of the regime going back many more years. He could well point, too, to the Iranian who was recently arrested in Israel on suspicion of scouting ahead for a terror attack against the US embassy in Tel Aviv, news of which was conveniently released by the Shin Bet security agency just as Netanyahu landed in the US. Beware, President Obama, he will be intimating, that friendly man who wished you well on the phone the other day is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the duplicitous messenger of a regime bent on America’s demise.

“I will tell the truth in the face of the sweet talk and the onslaught of smiles. One must talk facts and one must tell the truth,” the prime minister told this and other reporters traveling with him on the Boeing 767 that took him to New York. “Telling the truth today is vital for the security and peace of the world and, of course, it is vital for the security of the State of Israel.”

To that end, in his talks Monday with Obama and his address at the General Assembly the next day, the Israeli prime minister will likely reiterate his four demands that Iran halt uranium enrichment, remove already enriched material, close the Fordo nuclear facility, and discontinue the plutonium track in Arak.

But few at the UN will listen to Netanyahu — and not only because they won’t like his bleak message. He will be the final speaker of this year’s General Assembly, and most world leaders will have left town.

Last year, Netanyahu’s red line for Iran, and the cartoon bomb on which he drew it, dominated world headlines. This year, Rouhani was the General Assembly’s great attraction. But the real star — for better or worse — was that mechanism of statecraft called diplomacy, employed by both Obama and Rouhani. A friendly conversation between the presidents of Iran and the US was all but unthinkable just a week ago, yet a little sweet rhetoric from Tehran, encouraged by Washington, facilitated it

Just a few weeks ago, for that matter, no one would have believed that the UN Security Council could pass a resolution requiring Damascus to destroy its entire arsenal of chemical weapons. But what some analysts have started calling the “Obama doctrine” — which might be said to hold that even rogue regimes can be made to forgo their WMD, with the right mix of carrot and stick — had its impact there too. The key question in both cases, to which Netanyahu strongly believes the answer is no, is whether Syria and Iran will actually do what they are telling the international community they are willing to do.

Netanyahu knows all too well that the Iranian diplomatic train has left the station. Obama is already engaging with Rouhani, regardless of what “my friend Bibi” has to say. It’s too late to dissuade the president from at least testing Rouhani’s sincerity. Rather, at the White House on Monday, the Israeli leader will focus on the substance of that engagement, trying to define the parameters of a possible deal as tightly as possible.

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry will all do their utmost to convince their bitter guest that Israel has nothing to fear, that they won’t be fooled by what Netanyahu calls the Iranian “smokescreen,” that they will not lose sight of their commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Netanyahu will present intelligence showing that the Iranian drive to the bomb has not slowed since Rouhani took office. In the end, the devil will be in the details: Will Iran allow surprise inspections by international observers at all its nuclear facilities and real-time monitoring of activities? How much uranium will it be allowed to enrich and retain, at what level, for its ostensible nonmilitary purposes? Will the Fordo complex be closed, and the plutonium route to the bomb abandoned? When will which sanctions be relaxed in return?

The Americans “respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy,” Obama said last week. Netanyahu mission is to ensure that this is all they can ever access. His concern is that even the most effective presentation to Obama, and the corniest attention-grabbing gimmicks at the UN, may not be enough.

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