UNITED NATIONS — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel sought to shred the credibility of Iran’s new president Tuesday, using his annual speech at the United Nations to cast the Iranian as a man who could not be trusted and to press the international community to keep up sanctions to prevent him from building a nuclear bomb.
In a speech that clearly reflected Israel’s worry that the Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, had successfully conveyed a readiness to compromise at the UN last week, Netanyahu focused the majority of his 33-minute address on Rouhani. He described him as a beguiling figure who used reassuring words to mask intentions to attain nuclear weapons.
Only “tough sanctions and credible military threats,” Netanyahu said, would compel Rouhani to put an end to that effort, although in an apparent nod to emerging diplomatic efforts, he sought to prescribe precise conditions for a deal, including that Iran stop enriching uranium.
Iran has repeatedly said that uranium enrichment is its legal right and that the country’s nuclear ambitions are peaceful.
“I wish I could believe Rouhani, but I don’t,” Netanyahu told the General Assembly, where Iran’s seats were vacant in apparent retaliation for Israel’s boycott of Rouhani’s speech a week earlier. “Because facts are stubborn things and the facts are that Iran’s savage record flatly contradicts Rouhani’s soothing rhetoric.”
The contrast in tone between Netanyahu and Rouhani was stark. Unlike the Iranian, who smiled a lot during his address and sought to appear conciliatory, the Israeli prime minister was low on smiles, high on sarcasm. Rouhani did not mention Israel by name in his address, nor its prime minister; Netanyahu spoke the Iranian president’s name 25 times.
He called Iran a rogue regime that had stockpiled nuclear material for what Netanyahu described as a rush to build a bomb. He also asserted that the sanctions, which have deeply affected Iran’s economy, were precisely what had driven Iran to appear more flexible about a making a deal.
“That’s why Rouhani got elected in the first place,” Netanyahu said. “That’s why he launched his charm offensive.”
Netanyahu said the international response to Iran’s entreaties for sanctions relief should be “distrust, dismantle, and verify,” and he repeated his warnings that Israel reserved the right to preemptively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities if it deemed that the Iranians were close to producing nuclear weapons.
He mentioned President Obama only once in his speech, praising him for insisting that Iran take concrete steps to back up its words. But in contrast to the display of unity during Netanyahu’s meeting Monday with Obama at the White House, the Israeli prime minister hinted at their differences in how to deal with Iran.
“If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone,” Netanyahu said.
Iran swiftly issued a rejoinder. Khodadad Seifi, a deputy ambassador at Iran’s mission to the UN, said afterward that his country had found Netanyahu’s speech inflammatory, rejected the notion that Iran was building a nuclear arsenal, and asserted its right to self-defense.
“The Israeli Prime Minister better not even think about attacking Iran, let alone planning for that,” Seifi said. He capped his remarks by saying that Iran’s “smile policy” was better than “lying.”
Netanyahu’s address, the last at the annual General Assembly session of member speeches, served as a bookend to a conclave that has been dominated by the Iran nuclear issue and an aggressive diplomatic outreach by Iran. Rouhani, over four days last week, blitzed New York with closed-door meetings, public addresses, and television interviews, all the while seeking to convey his desire to swiftly resolve the nuclear standoff with the West.
The visit ended with a brief telephone call from Obama, the first such communication by Iranian and US leaders in 34 years of estrangement.
The optimism conveyed by Rouhani’s visit did not sway Netanyahu. He said a nuclear-armed Iran was the equivalent of 50 North Koreas. He reminded his audience that, in Israel’s view, a nuclear-armed Iran posed an existential threat to Israel.
Netanyahu declared that Rouhani was no different from any other president of Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“They’ve all served that same unforgiving creed, that same unforgiving regime,” he said.
Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, whose position is ceremonial but who speaks around the world as a respected elder statesman, largely echoed Netanyahu’s warnings about Rouhani in a speech Tuesday to the Dutch Parliament, but he offered a warmer embrace of the diplomatic process.
“Actually, negotiations can be achieved in a few months,” Peres said. “There is no need for any interim solutions. There is no reason for half-measures. To cross a chasm, it is safer to do it in one brave step.”
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s communications minister, said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 television that Netanyahu’s speech had been meant to convey the Israeli government view that Rouhani had been seeking to deceive.
“The world needs to understand that the niceness attack is an attack of lies that is aimed to achieve nothing but the removal of the sanctions, and if Israel shall find itself alone it will also act alone,” he said.