JERUSALEM // Israeli officials have said a possible rapprochement between the US and Iran could lead to a foolish softening of US-backed sanctions and bring Iran closer to building nuclear weapons.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, told US media this week that his country had no intention to make atom bombs. His statement was part of a series of conciliatory signals coming from Tehran that recently received a guarded welcome from the White House in the form of letters exchanged between Mr Rouhani and the US president, Barack Obama.
“Don’t be fooled by the Iranian president’s fraudulent statements,” Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister and proponent of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities, said on Thursday.
The head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission warned on Wednesday that Iran’s gestures were nothing but “deception and concealment” of its alleged plans to make nuclear weapons.
A day earlier, Mr Netanyahu laid out his own demands that must be met by Tehran before a softening of international sanctions, or else such pressure “must be increased”. The Israeli leader is expected to repeat those demands during a meeting in Washington next week with Mr Obama and at his address to the United Nations General Assembly.
But by coming out too strongly against the flurry of conciliatory messages from Mr Rouhani, a potential reformer who was elected in June, Israeli leaders may risk angering their patrons in Washington and Europe.
“The danger of a sour-faced Israeli approach is that this may be seen by the Americans and the West as Israel not wanting to see any change in the situation,” said Meir Litvak, director of Tel Aviv University’s Alliance Centre for Iranian Studies.
“This could be damaging in terms of a public relations point of view.”
Of course, deep Israeli scepticism of Iranian leaders should be expected.
Mr Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, became notorious for anti-Israel barbs, holocaust denials as well as bizarre and long-winded diatribes.
Under his leadership, Tehran’s reputation for intransigent diplomacy with the West over its nuclear activities gave Israelis serious pause for concern. So too has continued Iranian support for the Assad regime of Syria and Lebanon’s Hizbollah movement, both foes of Israel.
“These guys are very, very formidable enemies, and you can’t underestimate them,” said Dan Schueftan, director of Haifa University’s National Security Studies Centre.
He said most Israelis agreed with Mr Netanyahu’s combative response to Iran’s moves under Mr Rouhani. “If you’re not sceptical of these guys, you’re not qualified to be prime minister of Israel,” Mr Schueftan said.
Still, in some cases, the official reaction has bordered on petty.
This month, a Twitter account attributed to Mr Rouhani greeted Jews on their religious New Year of Rosh Hashanah. So too did a Twitter feed associated with his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
In response, Mr Netanyahu said that he was “unimpressed”.
“The Iranian regime will be judged only by its actions and not by its greetings,” he said.