JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister on Tuesday voiced deep skepticism about the new Iranian president's outreach to the West, saying the world "should not be fooled" and must keep up the pressure on Tehran's suspect nuclear program.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued his warning in response to Iranian President Hasan Rouhani's address to the General Assembly. In his speech, the Iranian leader said his nation is ready to restart stalled negotiations over its nuclear program. He also called for moderation and rejected violence.
Israeli officials believe Iran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb and fear that Rouhani's gestures to the West will lead to an easing of international pressure. Netanyahu's statements, issued both before and after Rouhani's speech, were meant as a counterweight to the growing enthusiasm in the West over a series of moderate overtures by Rouhani. He also said Rouhani offered no plans to halt his nuclear program.
In comments likely to play into Israel's fears, President Barack Obama told the U.N. on Tuesday that he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to explore contacts with Iran.
"Israel would welcome a genuine diplomatic solution that truly dismantles Iran's capacity to develop nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said in a videotaped statement ahead of Rouhani's speech. "But we will not be fooled by half-measures that merely provide a smokescreen for Iran's continual pursuit of nuclear weapons. And the world should not be fooled either."
After Rouhani's speech, Netanyahu showed no signs of softening his position. He said the address was filled with "hypocrisy," saying that while Rouhani was talking of peace, Iranian forces were participating in the large-scale slaughter of civilians in Syria, a close ally. He also accused Iran of using terrorism in "dozens" of countries, developing long-range missiles, denying the Holocaust, calling for Israel's destruction and pushing forward with its nuclear program.
"It is no coincidence that the speech lacked both any practical proposal to stop Iran's military nuclear program and any commitment to fulfill U.N. Security decisions," he said.
"This is exactly Iran's strategy — to talk and play for time in order to advance its ability to achieve nuclear weapons," he added. "The international community must test Iran not by its words, but by its actions."
Netanyahu said he would discuss the matter with Obama at a White House meeting next week, and welcomed Obama's pledge that Iranian words be matched with "transparent and verifiable" action.
Iran denies accusations by Israel and Western countries that it is seeking nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be a threat to its very existence, citing Iran's repeated calls for Israel's destruction, its sophisticated arsenal of weapons and its support for Israel's bitterest Arab enemies. Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Israel's north, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, on Israel's southern flank, possess tens of thousands of rockets and missiles provided by Iran.
Netanyahu has issued four demands for halting Iran's nuclear program. He says Iran must stop enriching uranium, a key step in developing a nuclear weapon; ship its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country; close a heavily fortified underground enrichment facility; and not make plutonium, another possible path to nuclear weapons. He also says any diplomatic activity must be accompanied by a "credible" military threat.
In the current diplomatic environment, it seems unlikely the West will insist on such conditions. Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran, unilaterally if necessary, if it concludes diplomacy has failed.
Netanyahu instructed Israel's U.N. delegation to boycott Rouhani's speech and walk out of the General Assembly. Israel has strongly objected to efforts by its enemies to boycott it in international bodies, as well as attempts by pro-Palestinian activists to boycott Israeli businesses and products.
"As the prime minister of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, I could not allow the Israeli delegation to be part of a cynical public relations ploy by a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for our destruction," he said.
After Rouhani's speech, Israeli Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz, who is responsible for monitoring the Iranian nuclear program, met with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and urged the international community to avoid the same mistakes that enabled North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. In a statement, Steinitz said North Korea developed its weapon despite two signed agreements that were enthusiastically welcomed around the world. He said that as a South Korean citizen, Ban had a special understanding of the danger.