Spoiler Alert: Netanyahu will be all about Iran at UNGA

by Marsha B. Cohen

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as of last week, planned on hitting the “refresh” button on the Iranian threat to Israel and the world, juxtaposing the callow grimace of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s ubiquitous smile.

Israeli media on Sunday — after President Barack Obama’s historic 15-minute phone call with Rouhani — reported Netanyahu was furiously rewriting his UN speech, “vowing to expose ‘the truth’ in the wake of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s recent overtures to the United States.”

“Like North Korea before it, Iran will try to remove sanctions by offering cosmetic concessions, while preserving its ability to rapidly build a nuclear weapon at a time of its choosing,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement explaining the Israeli delegation’s decision to boycott Rouhani’s address last week to the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

Can Netanyahu successfully revive the Bush administration’s lumping together of Iran with North Korea into a new “axis of evil”? He’s done it before, and, according to numerous reports, he’s certainly going to try again on Tuesday. At least this was the plan prior to the phone conversation between Obama and Rouhani on Friday, about which Netanyahu has not commented on and banned his government’s ministers, staff and Israel’s ambassadors from discussing. Israel’s Channel 2 reported on Saturday night that Israel was advised in advance that the phone call would take place, but “there was no advance coordination of positions” between Israel and the US on the content of the talk, according to the Times of Israel.

Netanyahu’s own UNGA speech on Oct. 1 is expected to chronicle the failure of diplomacy to deter North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, arguing that North Korea’s case demonstrates the futility of diplomatic engagement with Iran. The Israeli daily Israel Hayom reports:

Netanyahu will try to teach the Americans a history lesson involving a not so distant affair that culminated with another big con job: North Korea. The West held talks with that country as well. Promises were made. Then, one morning, the world woke up to a deafening roar of thunder: the regime had conducted a nuclear test. The North Koreans proved that a radical regime can fool the world. Do not create a new North Korean model, Netanyahu will say.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times last week, “Iran must not be allowed to repeat North Korea’s ploy to get nuclear weapons””

“Just like North Korea before it,” he said, “Iran professes to seemingly peaceful intentions; it talks the talk of nonproliferation while seeking to ease sanctions and buy more time for its nuclear program.”

The official said Netanyahu’s speech would highlight the active period of diplomacy in 2005 when the North Korean government seemingly agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for economic, security and energy benefits.

A year later, North Korea tested its first nuclear device. Israeli officials warn something similar could happen if the United States were to conclude too hasty a deal with Mr. Rouhani. As Iran is doing today, the North Koreans insisted on a right to a peaceful nuclear energy program.

To make his case, Netanyahu’s talking points may well refer to some of the parallels he has drawn in the past between North Korea and Iran. Whether he focuses on the North Korea parallel or not, Netanyahu’s arguments will boil down to: 1) Diplomacy isn’t bad, but it won’t work; 2) we need more sanctions; 3) only a credible threat of force will stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons; and 4) the talks will be used by the Iranians to delay and deceive. Let’s dig a little deeper into these points.

Diplomacy won’t work:

Immediately after North Korea’s underground nuclear test on May 25, 2009, and less than a month before Iran’s contentious 2009 presidential election, Netanyahu declared that North Korea was a textbook case of what Obama could expect if he insisted on wasting time engaging in dialogue with Iran. Taking no chances about the outcome of the election, in which  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rivals included two reformist candidates, Netanyahu said the latest Israeli intelligence estimate showed that Iran was engaged in a “national nuclear project” that was more than a one-man show. In other words, even if Ahmadinejad were to lose, Iran’s nuclear weapons program would continue. Netanyahu expressed no hope that Obama (at that point in office for just over 3 months) would ever succeed in talking Iran out of its pursuit of nuclear weapons. However, he generously agreed to give the U.S. President until the end of the year to try.

Sanctions don’t work — but we need more:

Netanyahu has flip-flopped about the efficacy of sanctions in stopping Iran’s alleged quest for a nuclear weapon. In January 2012 he told The Australian that there were signs that sanctions were finally working: “For the first time, I see Iran wobble under the sanctions that have been adopted and especially under the threat of strong sanctions on their central bank.” A week later, he complained to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “The sanctions employed thus far are ineffective, they have no impact on the nuclear program. We need tough sanctions against the central bank and oil industry. These things are not happening yet and that is why it has no effect on the nuclear program.”

According to an issue brief on “The Global Nonproliferation Regime” published by the Council on Foreign Relations this past June:

Although three states (India, Israel, and Pakistan) are known or believed to have acquired nuclear weapons during the Cold War, for five decades following the development of nuclear technology, only nine states have developed—and since 1945 none has used—nuclear weapons. However, arguably not a single known or suspected case of proliferation since the early 1990s—Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, or Syria— was deterred or reversed by the multilateral institutions [i.e. sanctions] created for this purpose.

The question then becomes, if sanctions haven’t historically deterred states from seeking nuclear weapons, why invest so much time and energy imposing and demanding more of them on Iran?

The credible military threat:

In February 2013, a week after North Korea carried out its third nuclear test (UN resolutions notwithstanding), Netanyahu warned the Jewish Agency’s International Board of Governors that sanctions, no matter how crippling, could not stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. “Have sanctions, tough sanctions, stopped North Korea? No. And the fact that they produced a nuclear explosion reverberates everywhere in the Middle East, and especially in Iran.” Without a “robust, credible military threat,” backing up economic sanctions, Iran could not be deterred from seeking nuclear weapons, he argued.

Yet Netanyahu’s repeated calls for sanctions against Iran to “be coupled with a robust, credible military threat” fail to point out a single example where the threat — or actual use — of military force with or without sanctions has successfully deterred any state, including North Korea, from developing nuclear weapons. That’s because there are none.

“Operation Opera,” in which Israeli planes destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak, is often cited by hawks as a precedent for a similar attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Numerous security studies experts and counter-proliferation specialists agree that the operation was not nearly as successful as the Israelis claimed in preventing Saddam Hussein’s access to weapons of mass destruction. In fact, it may have accelerated, rather than stymied, Hussein’s quest for nuclear weaponry. (As a related side note, it’s doubtful Netanyahu will claim credit in his UN speech for Israel’s alleged counter-proliferation efforts in Syria, or invoke them as a model for dealing with Iran, but one never knows.)

Talks a tactic to “delay and deceive”:

Speaking during a visit to Prague in May 2012, Netanyahu stated that he had seen “no evidence whatsoever” that Iran was serious about halting its nuclear weapons program:

“It looks as though they (Iran) see these talks as another opportunity to deceive and delay, just like North Korean did for years,” Netanyahu said. “They may try to go from meeting to meeting with empty promises. They may agree to something in principle but not implement it. They may even agree to implement something that does not materially derail their nuclear weapons program,” he said.

But no credible US or Western intelligence estimate has provided evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, or that it is pursuing a nuclear weapon. According to the US intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat assessment, the US believes Iran has the technical capability to make nuclear weapons, but does not know if Iran will decide to do so. However, the assessment also states that the US would know in time if Iran attempted to break out to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb (implying that Iran has not made the decision yet). It goes on to note that Tehran “has developed technical expertise in a number of areas—including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles—from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable  nuclear weapons,” making “the central issue its political will to do so.”

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes was widely quoted last week by numerous media sources including the New York Times in such a way as to imply the U.S. also saw significant similarities between the Iranian and North Korean cases. Only the South Korean News Agency Yonhap quoted enough of Rhodes’ statement to convey his entire message. In fact, Rhodes actually said that the two cases require different strategies: “the international community needs to take different approaches toward North Korea and Iran with regard to their nuclear programs.”

Ultimately though, the bottom line remains: however fervently and persuasively Netanyahu argues that Iranian nuclear weapons capability has been achieved or is imminent, he has yet to offer any solution that will effectively address the problem. Reframing the Iranian nuclear issue in such a way that allows a pragmatist like Rouhani to make substantial and effective nuclear, economic and political reforms in Iran offers the best — and perhaps the only — chance at achieving greater Middle East stability and security. That, unfortunately, will not be among Netanyahu’s recommendations on Tuesday.

Photo Credit: Marsha Cohen/Graphics: IPC; Tedumas

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. Netanyahu is one politician completely and utterly devoid of any credibility whatsoever. This is the guy who said Iran is 6 months away from nuclear weapons in 1991!

    As an Iranian my only message to the prime minister of Israel this: buzz off!

  2. Well said Persian, around 20 years ago when Robert Baer (now retired CIA intelligence officer with 25yrs of field experience in ME) visited the Saudis along with other American delegates, the Saudi Intelligence told him “what will happen to us the day you and the Iranians come to your senses and settle your differences?!” The Arabs and Israelis both know that the natural power epicenter for stability and prosperity in the region lies in Iran. So they’ve been watching with glee from the sidelines as Iran’s power in the region diminished. Now some might accuse me of being biased, but all you have to do is look at some recent honest Arab intellectual work such Mohammad Elberaedi’s book “nuclear diplomacy in age of deception”, where he states Iran has highly educated society with great advancements in science and technology, and instead of trying to bring Iranians down at every opportunity, we should try and aspire to catch up to them. He made this comment when recounting how most Arab diplomats were encouraging military strike and ongoing sanctions on Iran by the US over it’s nuclear stand off.
    The Israeli policy has always been based on a “boogyman” in the region who threatens their existence. This allows them to continue their military hegemony, expansionist wars, rejection of Palestinian statehood, and oppression of political dissent both internally and externally. Their ultimate goal of taking over all their “promised land” from Jordan river to Mediterranean coast will not come through by way of peace but by ongoing creation of a security atmosphere, a nation besieged and supposedly defending itself against all odds. That is the only way militaristic societies can justify their crimes to their society. Sub humanize your enemy, so that they are no longer worthy of human compassion. Infact I have to take my hat off to Israeli Film makers and intellectuals, for there has been increasing number of films, books and literature coming out of Israel criticizing their governments foreign policy, some thing many in the region couldn’t claim to be able to do without grave consequences. However Israeli politicians never seem to want to admit that the biggest obstacle to peace is their own intransigence. It is always someone else’s fault, Arabs being greedy, west selling them out, Iran trying to wipe them out…blah blah blah. When Ahmadi was there it was easy, they didn’t have to do too much to convince the world of this paranoid delusion, but their biggest fear has come through, Arabs who are ready to make peace if Israel accepts the very reasonable terms offered to them, and an Iran ruled by reasonable and level headed individuals. Suddenly they are the ones that will seem wild, dangerous and irrational and world gets to see their politicians for who they truly are….Spoiled little kids, throwing their toys because they not getting what they want…..

  3. I couldn’t agree more with this excellent aarticle. I would only add that comparing Iran with North Korea is ludicrous and one would hope that someone will challenge Netanyahu on this subject.

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