Netanyahu Swims Against Iranian Diplomatic Current

Ali Gharib explains where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went wrong in his Iran-dominated address to the United Nations General Assembly.

Andrew Burton / Getty Images

No one can claim to be surprised at Benjamin Netanyahu's United Nations General Assembly address. But given the historic outreach by Iran of late—a mutually conciliatory week at the U.N. capped by the first contact between an Iranian leader and an American one since 1979—observers were bound to hang on Bibi's every word. The word he used the most, of course, was "Iran" itself: Netanyahu let his arch-enemy's name pass his lips some 70 times during the address. A few mentions were even positive, as when Netanyahu began by lauding the ancient Persian king Cyrus's freeing of Jews in captivity—in stark contrast to his previous Biblical comparisons. From Cyrus on, however, it was all, to borrow another Biblical allusion, fire and brimstone.

The hawkish Israeli prime minister's speech delivered on all the grounds one might expect: Netanyahu called for maintaining, and perhaps even increasing, pressure on Iran, and restated that Israel would attack Iran if deemed necessary. He focused on Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, deriding the moderate cleric, again, as a "wolf in sheep's clothing." He read from Rouhani's memoirs and speeches (a risk, given his dubious past readings), raised his alleged role in previous acts of oppression and even terrorism, and asserted Iran's determination to build nuclear weapons. "Ladies and gentlemen, I wish I could believe Rouhani," Netanyahu announced, mispronouncing at every instance the Iranian leader's name. "But I don't because facts are stubborn things, and the facts are that Iran's savage record flatly contradicts Rouhani's soothing rhetoric."

Only some of Netanyahu's facts weren't. "Iran is developing nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said, at worst contradicting and at best omitting any modicum of nuance in reading America's—and Israel's—intelligence assessments about Iran's nuclear work. "And since Rouhani's election—and I stress this—this vast and feverish effort has continued unabated." And yet Netanyahu took credit for forcing Iran to slow its own nuclear progress, claiming that his General Assembly speech last year led Iran to reprocess nuclear fuel, rendering it useless for a potential bomb—an argument just as flawed as when the Washington Post made it, but nonetheless one that fails on its own terms to paint a picture of "unabated" progress. Then Netanyahu said that during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Iranian regime "led wild chants of 'death of the Jews'"—a "fact" the Israeli-Iranian scholar Meir Javedanfar and BBC Persian correspondent Bahman Kalbasi both said was flatly untrue (revolutionaries did chant "death to Israel," which may be worthy of disdain, but isn't the same thing). “It really is jarring to see that, the extreme element, and how far he was willing to push it," said Iran expert Gary Sick, to the New York Times, of Netanyahu's speech. "He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”

Perhaps of most consequence, Netanyahu laid out his conditions for any nuclear accord. Unsurprisingly, these don't line up with any of the conditions most experts assess would need to be satisfied for Iran to agree to a deal. Netanyahu restated the four demands he's laid out before, notably including that Iran ship all its nuclear material out of country and dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Maybe, just maybe, Netanyahu is laying this out as a starting position, acting as a "bad cop." Some have suggested Netanyahu's references yesterday to Iran's "military nuclear program" might signal a shift that allows for Iran to retain some portions of a verifiably peaceful program, but that view took a hit when Netanyahu said that "the only diplomatic solution that would work is one that fully dismantles Iran's nuclear weapons program," and added: "and prevents it from having one in the future."

Netanyahu, long-since obsessed with a "credible military threat" against Iran, restated it on Monday: "If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone." Kelsey Davenport, of the Arms Control Association, astutely responded, "It is good that Prime Minister Netanyahu is prepared for that, because alone is where Israel is right now when it comes to policy on Iran’s nuclear program." Indeed, even stalwart pro-Israel American figures like Dennis Ross and David Makovsky seem prepared to accept a final deal that includes some domestic Iranian enrichment. And Congress, where Netanyahu can normally expect robust support, appears poised to stall any new sanctions until after new nuclear talks in Geneva this month. Only the dead-enders among America's pro-Israel hawks continue to back Netanyahu's maximalist positions—even as they recognize it portends deepening isolation for Israel.

"I know that the world is weary of war. We in Israel, we know all too well the cost of war," Netanyahu said yesterday. "But history has taught us that to prevent war tomorrow, we must be firm today." That's all fine, but Netanyahu must recognize that too much firmness is by no means conducive to a diplomatic agreement that will require concessions from both sides. Compromise, after all, is the stuff deals are made of. Netanyahu would only risk war—and further isolate Israel—if he can't eventually come around to realizing it.