Netanyahu says he would consider meeting with Rouhani

Two days after excoriating Hassan Rouhani as a wolf in sheep’s clothing who lies about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and 10 days after he instructed Israel’s UN delegation to leave the General Assembly hall rather than hear Rouhani speak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would “consider” meeting the Iranian president, in comments published early Friday.

Netanyahu, speaking to National Public Radio as part of a media blitz while in the US, said he would question Rouhani on Tehran’s nuclear program, which the Israeli leader has called to be completely shut down.

“I don’t care about the meeting. I don’t have a problem with the diplomatic process,” Netanyahu said to NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

“I haven’t been offered. If I’m offered, I’d consider it, but it’s not an issue,” he clarified. “If I meet with these people I’d stick this question in their face: Are you prepared to dismantle your program completely? Because you can’t stay with the [nuclear] enrichment.”

He also called Rouhani, considered a relative moderate, the “least bad” candidate of those who were allowed to run in Iran’s June presidential elections.

Netanyahu told NPR that Iran’s overtures toward a deal with the West to curb its uranium enrichment were “hogwash,” but said he would be “delighted” by a “real” deal, according to excerpts published by NPR. The full interview was to air on Morning Edition later Friday.

In his speech to the UN on Tuesday, Netanyahu had depicted Rouhani in withering terms, and set out what he said was the Iranian president’s strategy: “First, smile a lot. Smiling never hurts. Second, pay lip service to peace, democracy and tolerance. Third, offer meaningless concessions in exchange for lifting sanctions. And fourth, and the most important, ensure that Iran retains sufficient nuclear material and sufficient nuclear infrastructure to race to the bomb at a time it chooses to do so. You know why Rouhani thinks he can get away with this? I mean, this is a ruse. It’s a ploy… Because he’s gotten away with it before, because his strategy of talking a lot and doing little has worked for him in the past.”

A week earlier, the prime minister instructed the Israeli delegation to exit the General Assembly hall before Rouhani addressed the forum — the only country to do so. Later, facing criticism at home, including from inside his own coalition, Netanyahu said he was vindicated. To have the Israeli representatives in the hall listening to Rouhani’s speech, he said, “would have given legitimacy to a regime that does not accept that the Holocaust happened and publicly declares its desire to wipe Israel off the map.” As Israel’s prime minister, he said, “I won’t allow the Israeli delegation to be part of a cynical public relations charade by a regime that denies that Holocaust and calls for our destruction.”

Aides to Netanyahu had no comment on the prime minister’s remarks about meeting Rouhani. Those around Netanyahu said that the question about a meeting was hypothetical, and stressed that the prime minister’s stance on Iran, its ambition to destroy Israel, and the duplicity of its outreach to the West was unchanged.

Meanwhile Thursday, Netanyahu made his first effort at direct outreach to the Iranians, giving an interview to BBC Persian peppered with Farsi sayings.

In the BBC interview, he said the ayatollahs’ regime was responsible for the harsh sanctions and socioeconomic situation they are enduring.

“I would welcome a genuine rapprochement, a genuine effort to stop the nuclear program, not a fake one, not harf-e pootch [‘nonsense’ in Farsi]. We are not sadeh-lowe [‘suckers’ in Farsi],” said the prime minister.

Jerusalem, which enjoyed friendly relations with Tehran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has made efforts to avoid any contact with the Iranians, with Netanyahu ordering the Israeli delegation to leave the United Nations plenum when Rouhani spoke there on September 24.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu warned the United Nations General Assembly about Rouhani who, he said, was trying to charm the West while nuclear enrichment, widely believed to be for military purposes, continued in Iran as it did under his predecessor.

“[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 eyes — the wool over the eyes of the international community,” he said.

Israel sees an Iranian nuclear weapon as an existential threat and has lobbied the world to keep pressure on Tehran, though the US has recently made moves to open negotiations for lifting sanctions in exchange for concessions on the nuclear program.

Attempts at detente between the US and Iran, which cut off relations in 1980 following the Islamic Revolution and hostage crisis, reached fever pitch late last month, with US President Barack Obama speaking to Rouhani in a historic phone call. Rouhani rejected requests by Obama for a meeting, though, with officials saying the Iranian leader’s schedule did not allow for it.

On Wednesday, Rouhani responded unequivocally to Netanyahu’s UN speech, promising to continue what Iran insists is a peaceful nuclear program with “full power.”

“Israel is upset to see that its sword has gone blunt and Iran grows more powerful day by day,” Rouhani told reporters in Tehran, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.

Since the speech, Netanyahu has been engaged in a PR offensive, giving interviews to a number of Western news outlets designed to present Israel’s position on Iran.

Speaking to NBC Wednesday, Netanyahu dismissed the notion that Rouhani was freely elected, saying Iranians would topple the regime if they could.

“These people, the Iranian people, the majority of them are actually pro-Western,” he stated, adding, “But they don’t have that. They’re governed not by Rouhani, they’re governed by Ayatollah Khamenei. He heads a cult. That cult is wild in its ambitions and its aggression.”

On Wednesday night, meanwhile, Netanyahu spoke to American Jewish leaders at a closed media event, telling his audience that Rouhani’s charm offensive was not proving as successful as many observers assume.

Netanyahu said press coverage of the Iranian leader’s efforts to woo the West — notably in a UN speech 10 days ago, and a series of media interviews — might have exaggerated the effect it had on the public.

The prime minister also rejected critics who said his policies on Iran and the Palestinians isolated Israel, and said his stance on Iran is closer than many might imagine to that of many worried Arab states in the region.

Israel’s Channel 2 reported Wednesday that Netanyahu was presiding over “intensive contacts” with unnamed Arab and Gulf leaders to form a new alliance against Iran, amid fears that the US would be duped by Tehran in the nascent diplomatic process.

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