JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provided the U.N. with a memorable moment last year when he displayed a cartoon bomb illustrating what he said was Iran's march toward the development of a nuclear weapon. When he addresses the world body next week, he is expected to again call for a hard line to stop Iran's suspect nuclear program, backed by the credible use of force.
But the goalposts have moved a little: Some at the General Assembly's annual meeting will be calling for a more nuanced approach by the world in response to the emergence of a moderate Iranian president offering outreach in place of the saber-rattling and Holocaust denial of his more easily demonized predecessor. The world's focus on Syria's civil war, and the use of chemical weapons there, has further diverted attention from the Iranian nuclear issue.
This changing landscape has put Netanyahu in a difficult position. Convinced the latest signs of moderation by Iran are merely a ploy, the Israeli leader risks finding himself isolated as the international community, including President Barack Obama, tentatively engage the new Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani.
Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, confirmed that Israel is alarmed by what he derided as Rouhani's "smiley campaign." He said that despite some friendly gestures, Iran has shown no signs of slowing its efforts to enrich uranium, a key step in the production of nuclear weapons.
"On the one hand, Iran is trying to appease the world with Rouhani's moderate rhetoric. And on the other hand, Iran continues its approach toward nuclear weapons, and if nothing serious will be done, Rouhani will continue to smile, will continue to appease, and he will smile all the way to the bomb," Steinitz told the Associated Press.
Iran claims its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. But critics in Israel and the West dismiss such explanations. They point to Iran's refusals to cooperate with U.N. nuclear inspectors, its covert enrichment activities and lack of progress in years of Western on-and-off negotiations with the Iranians.
Israel has long claimed a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave threat to world peace and security. For Israel, the stakes are especially high. Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its very existence, noting calls by Iranian leaders for destruction of the Jewish state and Tehran's support of Israel's bitterest enemies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly expressed frustration with the West's inability to halt Iran's nuclear program. While welcoming several rounds of economic sanctions against Iran, it says diplomatic pressure has not been enough and must be coupled with a credible threat of military action. Israel has repeatedly hinted that if needed, it is prepared to take unilateral military action against Iran's nuclear program if it believes diplomacy has failed.
Speaking to his Cabinet last week, Netanyahu said he would make Iran the focus of his upcoming trip to the White House and the United Nations. He said he would make four key demands: that Iran stop enriching uranium, remove its existing stockpile of enriched uranium, close an underground enrichment facility in the central city of Qom and halt production of plutonium, another pathway to nuclear weapons.
"Until all four of these measures are achieved, the pressure on Iran must be increased and not relaxed, and certainly not eased," he said.
That does not seem likely as Obama, who has always seemed reluctant to use force against Iran, appears set to give diplomacy another shot.
Since taking office last month, Rouhani has said he would like to peacefully resolve the nuclear standoff by finding a formula that would ease international sanctions in return for more nuclear transparency. Meanwhile, he has made a series of gestures toward the U.S., such as exchanging letters with Obama and telling the U.S. network NBC his country does not want nuclear weapons.
These gestures mark a dramatic departure from the policies of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seemed to thrive on confrontation with Israel and the West. In another key shift, Rouhani appears to have the backing of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a sign his gestures are genuine.
The White House has cautiously welcomed Rouhani's outreach, raising speculation of a meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering.
"We have a preference for resolving this issue diplomatically and that we're open to engagement with the Iranian government," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said last week. While calling for a "sense of urgency," Rhodes also said the White House believes there is still time for diplomacy. Rhodes added: "We certainly recognize and appreciate Israel's significant concerns about Iran."
But Israeli officials are jittery. "Rouhani will cheat and lie at the U.N. Assembly," Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told a group of visiting Christian parliamentarians from around the world on Sunday. "And therefore we say: One way or another the Iranian nuclear threat needs to be stopped," he said.
For many in Israel, Obama's handling of the Syrian crisis is a cautionary tale. After earlier declaring that the use of chemical weapons constituted a "red line", Obama recently put off a strike in Syria in response to a chemical attack as part of a diplomatic agreement with Russia that calls for Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons by mid-2014. At the U.N., Obama will be trying to build support for a Security Council resolution making this agreement legally binding.
The U.S.-Russia agreement received only lukewarm support from Israel, which had felt it was important for Obama to uphold his red lines more firmly. Netanyahu has called the deal a "test case" for Iran, saying a failure by the international community to disarm Syria, Iran's close ally, will bode poorly for global efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program.
Netanyahu may also face questions about Israel's changing assessments of Iranian capabilities. In his address to the U.N. last year, Netanyahu said Iran would reach the final phase of weapons production "at most" by mid-2013. In a published interview last week, Steinitz said Iran was "six months" away from weapons capability.
Israeli officials say the Syrian diplomatic compromise and the changing intelligence assessment on Iran are the result of successful international pressure, specifically the threat of military action.
"It was not Israel that changed its assessment. It was the Iranians that changed their behavior following the depiction, the presentation of the red line by Benjamin Netanyahu," said Steinitz.
Pushing Iran too hard also risks drawing scrutiny toward Israel's own nuclear activities. Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, though it neither confirms nor denies having them. Last week, Israel fended off an Arab-led attempt at the annual conference of the U.N.'s nuclear agency to censure Israel's refusal to acknowledge having nuclear arms and put them under international oversight. Israel says an Israeli-Palestinian peace must be reached before creation of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, predicted disagreements between Netanyahu and Obama in their meeting.
"Netanyahu will ask Obama how he will make sure that Syria would not hide chemical weapons and that Iran would not develop nuclear weapons in disguise," he said. "I see some disagreements because Obama is likely to accept many deficient agreements that could prevent use of force."
Associated Press writers Ian Deitch and Alon Bernstein contributed to this report from Jerusalem.