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Netanyahu's Push: Countering Iranian Leader's Charm Offensive

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday in New York City.
Andrew Burton
Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday in New York City.

It must be draining to do eight interviews in a row, but Benjamin Netanyahu seemed energized by it. The Israeli prime minister walked into our meeting in a New York hotel room bantering and smiling. He commented on the shades (pulled down to avoid a backlit photo) and noticed a novel that our engineer had brought along. Netanyahu picked it up and looked it over — a novel by Joe Hill, the pen name for the son of Stephen King.

When we settled into the interview, Netanyahu picked up the book that he had brought along, which he held up in more than one of his interviews Thursday. This book was authored by Hassan Rouhani, the new president of Iran, who had written about his past experience as Iran's nuclear negotiator. When Rouhani was in charge of the nuclear file from 2003 to 2005, he made some progress in his talks with the West, but only temporary progress, even as Iran continued its nuclear development. Netanyahu took that book as a confession of Rouhani's duplicitousness. "He's an open book," Netanyahu said, "and we have the book!"

The public relations blitz was designed to counter the powerful impression Rouhani made during his earlier visit to New York. The Iranian president was elected on a promise to improve relations with the world; by the time of the election, he was the only one of a half-dozen candidates to make such a clear promise, and he won an outright majority in the first round of voting. Eloquent and seemingly open to change, he was a profound contrast to the departing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had questioned the Holocaust and spoken of wiping Israel off the map. Rouhani immediately became a subject of worldwide interest and a vessel for many people's hopes, hopes that were raised further when he took a phone call from President Obama on his way out of New York.

Netanyahu seemed bent on exposing the other side of Rouhani. The Iranian president is not, in fact, his country's most important official. He may be able to influence, but can never dictate to, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, who remains profoundly suspicious of America and hostile to Israel. And Rouhani is not, in fact, an Iranian outsider — he's been part of Iran's clerical establishment for many years.

The question for Israel, the United States and the world is how much they can gain from the shift in leadership in Tehran. Under pressure from brutal sanctions, is Iran's complex and multilayered political system really ready to scale back nuclear ambitions? Is it prepared to normalize relations with the world? And if so, how could the world best nudge them there?

Netanyahu is urging "distrust," a word he used in a speech before the United Nations. Leading nations including the United States are scheduled to hold talks with Iran in a few weeks over its nuclear program. Netanyahu's proposed formula for these negotiations is essentially not to negotiate at all: The world should refuse to lift any of the sanctions against Iran until after it has surrendered every worrisome part of its nuclear program.

I asked Netanyahu if Iran's election created an "opportunity." Whatever the inner motives of the clerical establishment, Iran's people clearly voted for better relations with the world; now the regime will face pressure to deliver, or be seen as flouting its own people's will. The prime minister acknowledged he did, in fact, see an opportunity — "if we keep up the pressure" — but then changed the subject back to the dangers of the moment and never fleshed out what opportunities he might see.

Would he be willing to meet Rouhani? Netanyahu said he would "consider" such a meeting if it was offered to him; he insisted he had "no problem with diplomacy." The rest of our conversation, however, made it clear that he did have a problem with diplomacy if it lets Iran off the hook. "You want a deal? Fine," he said. "But it has to be a real solution, not a fake solution."

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Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.