Ever since Iranian President Hasan Rouhani gave his address at the United Nations General Assembly last week, the world has been living in some kind of fantasy. At the Iranian movie festival in New York, Rouhani managed to sell the world on a romantic comedy in which the Iranians and the rest of the world live happily ever every after. If it wasn't about an Iranian nuclear bomb and an existential threat to Israel, it could have been rather funny. And if it weren't for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's own U.N. address this week, the Iranian movie could have just kept on running.
Netanyahu was the last speaker at this year's General Assembly. Some say that he really did come too late. To borrow terms from the field of social psychology, Rouhani won with the primacy effect, while Netanyahu won with the recency effect.
The prime minister's advantage lies in that he concluded the assembly. He could see that there wasn't a single righteous man among the assembled world leaders who would tell the Iranians the truth. On the contrary, Rouhani was able to meet with almost every official he wished to meet with, and thus proved once and for all that Iran is not at all isolated. He was even the one to dictate the level and quality of his contact with U.S. President Barack Obama: It began as a planned casual meeting accompanied by a handshake, as he himself admitted, during a luncheon hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but ended up being a phone call just before he returned home to Iran.
Iran became the world's, rather than just Israel's, problem a long time ago. Nevertheless, Israel's prime minister looked to his left and to his right and saw that among all the speakers there was not one who could communicate a sharp, clear message to Iran. There was not one whose speech reflected a historic perspective or any genuine concern. There was not a single person who stood up and said "the emperor Rouhani has no clothes."
Therefore, on Tuesday, it was up to Netanyahu to assume the unpleasant task of putting an end to the Iranian fantasy. Netanyahu undoubtedly took the complex responsibility upon himself to bring us all back down to earth, which is hard and cold, just like the reality of the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu was left with the task of exposing that what Iran is actually offering is lies in exchange for diplomatic relations, and lies in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Netanyahu understands that though the world is no longer what it was, Iran is still the same Iran. When it comes to Iran's nuclear program, it really doesn't make any difference to Netanyahu whether the president in Iran is named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hasan Rouhani. In a serious speech, devoid of gimmicks, Netanyahu tried to tear the mask off the face of the Iranian president and burst the bubble. He described Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
Judging by the responses in the world, Netanyahu succeeded in this extremely unpopular mission. Netanyahu, the party pooper, not only managed to return home safely, he even managed to bring the world back down to earth.
He didn't come to win any popularity contests
"A nuclear-armed Iran in the Middle East wouldn’t be another North Korea. It would be another 50 North Koreas," the French weekly Le Point quoted Netanyahu's speech. A Canadian radio station chose to emphasize Netanyahu's remark that "Israel will stand alone" in the face of Iran. The British BBC network opted to underscore the Rouhani angle while Sky News went for the quote "Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons."
The headlines in the American media were many and diverse. ABC stressed Israel's resolve not to allow Iran to achieve military nuclear capability, while the Los Angeles Times chose to remark on the Israeli warning against Iranian deception, whose smiles are aimed only at lifting crippling sanctions and not curbing the nuclear program. Netanyahu's 33-minute-long speech yielded a plethora of headlines.
The Al-Jazeera website decided to highlight Netanyahu's warning not to trust Rouhani. On the whole, the media in the Gulf states enjoyed Netanyahu's speech immensely. It would be a lie to say that the warming relations between Tehran and Washington were a cause for celebration in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates.
In his speech, the prime minister mentioned how the important newspaper The New York Times failed in its analysis of the nuclear situation in North Korea. The prime minister, we've established, didn't come to the U.N. to win any popularity contests. He came with one objective: to openly put all the facts on the table. The following day, The New York Times wrote that the Israeli prime minister was sabotaging Obama's efforts to reconcile with Iran.
One must admit that Netanyahu's speech was up against some tough competition in real time: the menacing budget standoff that ultimately led to the shutdown of the U.S. government. This was the issue that was on the minds of the American public more than anything else this week. It is safe to assume that even during the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama at the Oval Office a day before the prime minister's speech, each leader had a slightly different set of priorities: one was thinking about the looming shutdown perpetrated by the Republicans, and the other was thinking about shutting down the Iranian nuclear program.
Credit without guarantees
"I think Netanyahu's speech was a terrific speech," Massimo Lomonaco of the Italian ANSA news agency told me this week. But he confessed that the world is occupied with other problems at the moment. In Italy, for example, the locals were more concerned with the no-confidence vote against Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, which ended up failing.
"I don't really think that the Italian public is especially worried about what is going on in Syria or Iran," Lomonaco said. Officials in Jerusalem are well aware of this, and though Netanyahu's speech was directed at the media as well as public opinion, it was mainly directed at Obama, other world leaders and also Iran, where it was received loud and clear.
Rouhani, who, until Netanyahu's speech was the star of the General Assembly, touched on Netanyahu's comments on Wednesday during a cabinet meeting. "That an aggressive regime in the region names Iran with coarse language is the cause of our happiness," Rouhani told reporters in Tehran. He gave Netanyahu's speech a lot of attention, and it appeared that this time, his eternal smile was prompted by irritation rather than pleasantry.
Rouhani gave himself a lot of credit in Tehran this week. He boasted how Iran, with its sober policies, had prevented regional war, and how he received five letters from Obama asking him to meet in New York during the General Assembly -- invitations that he said he rejected. Rouhani even explained that the conditions were not ripe for a face-to-face meeting because of the "dark" atmosphere that still surrounds American-Iranian relations and because a decades-long crisis cannot be resolved in a matter of days.
There is no doubt that Netanyahu's speech came right on time. The world was being blinded by Rouhani, even though we have all already seen this movie with the "liberal" Mohammad Khatami, who was elected president of Iran in 1997 and served in that role until 2005. Back then people were talking about Khatami in the same kind of terms, as though he was some kind of Mikhail Gorbachev who would bring about the Iranian version of glasnost (freedom of speech, increased openness).
Even though that never happened and even though Iran never did away with its nuclear program -- they only put it on hold when the Americans landed in Iraq in 2003 -- Khatami, and now Rouhani, received, and continue to receive a lot of credit from the West. Credit without any guarantees.
That is precisely the reason why Netanyahu felt he needed to expose Rouhani's true nature. Netanyahu knows full well that very few people in the world, if any, have read Rouhani's book, published in 2011, in which he openly describes how he tricked the world when Iran completed building its nuclear infrastructure in Isfahan while simultaneously exchanging soothing words with the European negotiators.
The prime minister's objective wasn't only to warn, expose and lay blame, but also to alert the world to the looming dangers. The world, Netanyahu knows, really wants to extricate itself from crisis, even if the solution is nothing more than fantasy or perception. That is why many media outlets ran articles urging the West to lift the economic sanctions and boost Rouhani's position against the Iranian conservatives and against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Netanyahu came to the U.N. to clarify and remind the world that Rouhani, who accompanied the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to exile in France, and returned with him as a victor to Iran, was not fighting against the conservatives and the religious institution -- he was a part of the religious institution.
Netanyahu also wanted to remind the world exactly how that same Rouhani served as his country's national security adviser at a time when Iran was involved in global acts of terror, all the way from Buenos Aires to Beirut. How much could Rouhani have changed? Netanyahu wondered. It is not pleasant for Western ears to hear the truth, but that was the objective of Netanyahu's speech.
Netanyahu wanted to caution against leaving Iran with even the most minimal ability to enrich uranium. "There are those who would readily agree to leave Iran with a residual capability to enrich uranium. I advise them to pay close attention to what Rouhani said in his speech in 2005," Netanyahu said.
"A country 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," Netanyahu quoted Rouhani, adding that "This is why Iran’s nuclear weapons program must be fully and verifiably dismantled."
It didn't take long after Netanyahu's speech for Iran to prove that it is exactly the same Iran that it always was. In the middle of this past week, Iran's parliament convened to reiterate the country's right to enrich uranium. Iran's deputy foreign minister did say that his country would be willing to discuss the "level of enrichment," but he added that this time, unlike the period between 2003 and 2005, there was no chance that Iran would suspend its enrichment program.
You don't need to be an expert to know that Netanyahu is right. Incidentally, even his political opponents back in Israel agree with Netanyahu's analysis of the Iranian regime and the new Iranian formula -- lies in exchange for diplomatic relations.
In order to understand Iran's strategy of deception we may need to go back to one of the speeches given by Khamenei, Iran's strongest man and the successor of Ayattollah Khomeini. Khamenei, as the French newspaper Le Figaro revealed, invoked a new phrase -- "heroic flexibility" -- in reference to a form of wrestling. Khamenei explained that in this sport, the player must display flexibility toward his opponent in order to ultimately defeat him with "red lines that must not be crossed."
Khamenei further explained that the conditions under which Iran would agree to forge closer ties with the U.S. have not changed. The U.S. must relinquish its dream of replacing the Iranian regime, as former U.S. President George W. Bush once wanted, and it must build a relationship in which both sides benefit, on the nuclear side too. The Iranian regime is willing to do anything to achieve their goal, even at the cost of changing their tone, and that is precisely what is new in the republic today: Rouhani is sweet talking, unlike Ahmadinejad who spoke aggressively and was not open to compromise.
The Islamic republic has made great strides in its nuclear program, and has even installed new centrifuges in its enrichment facility in Natanz. But the West's sanctions are heavily burdening the Iranian economy, and the isolation is beginning to take a toll.
Tehran is reading the regional map rather accurately. Iran has chosen to present itself as the responsible adult in the region and help the Americans resolve the crisis in Syria. In Washington, there are those who believe that this warming of relations with Tehran, if it doesn't bring about a drastic shift in Iran's policy, at least it will help the Shiite republic become less of a rogue state. Netanyahu's great advantage is that beyond his exceptional oratorical skills, he now has a new coalition that will help Israel reveal Iran's true face to the world.
In conclusion, one could say that this week in New York started out in Farsi but concluded in Hebrew. Also, by some coincidence, the Daily Telegraph reported on Thursday that the head of the Iranian cyberwarfare unit was mysteriously murdered. If true, this report will join a long list of previous reports of mysterious assassinations of high-ranking Iranian officials, over which the Iranians were especially bitter last week in New York.
Netanyahu's speech generated a lot of responses, particularly in Tehran. Following Rouhani's response, Iranian Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Hassan Fairouz issued a response of his own, referring to Israel's and the U.S.'s much-repeated phrase, "the military option is on the table," saying that it was antiquated and rusty and that the table was a rickety one. He too, like his president, said that Netanyahu's remarks were cause to rejoice. It is safe to assume that in this, too, the Iranians are lying. One thing is clear, however: Netanyahu has managed to stress the Iranians out. Israel, of all countries, at this complicated juncture, was wise enough to keep its cool.
"If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone," Netanyahu said in his responsible address, which aimed to urge the entire world to continue combating the Iranian nuclear bomb.
Netanyahu's truth speech comes in stark contrast with Iran's massive deception. The Iranian lie is being distilled in the centrifuges. That is the danger of which Netanyahu wanted to remind the world.