Correction 10/2/13 11:50 A.M.: An earlier version of this story noted that the mention of "Israel" was the first by an Iranian leader in decades. This is incorrect; in fact, even hardline Iranian leaders like Mahmoud Admadinejad have done so from time to time. We regret the error. And we thank Adam Kredo and Noah Pollak for bringing this to our attention.
Israel and Iran closed this year’s U.N. General Assembly session today with a flurry of rhetorical thrusts, threats, and warnings that grabbed headlines around the globe. Overlooked in the commotion was a small, but potentially important turn of phrase: the Iranians actually acknowledged their Israeli sparring partners as "Israelis" — not members of some mythical "Zionist entity" — and admitted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel’s political leader.
Netanyahu went first, all-but-accusing Iranian President Hasan Rouhani of being a serial liar and warning that Israel would act alone, if necessary, to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. "Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map," Netanyahu told a gathering of U.N. dignitaries at the General Assembly. "I want there to be no confusion on this point. Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone."
Iran’s representative shot back. A relatively junior Iranian diplomat, Khodadad Siefi, warned that "the Israeli prime minister had better not even think about attacking Iran, let alone planning for that." Netanyahu, Siefi said, "should seriously avoid a miscalculation about Iran. Iran’s centuries old policy of non-aggression must not be interpreted as its inability to defend itself."
The feisty exchange reflected the deep animosity that still exists between the two Middle East rivals, despite a new diplomatic effort by Iran to repair its relations with the West. But obscured by the rhetorical skirmish was the fact that an Iranian diplomat had just referred to an Israeli leader as, well, the Israeli leader. Not only that. He had repeated the word Israel several times in the course of his rebuke of Netanyahu. Iranian leaders haven’t done that very often, since the 1979 revolution in Tehran.
"Calling Israel ‘Israel’ is definitely a departure," said Joel Rubin, a specialist on Israel at the Ploughshares Fund, a dovish think tank based in Washington, D.C. "Israel has been described in the past decade, and perhaps during the past 30 years, at a minimum as the Zionist entity, with all that implies: which is that it’s not recognized, it’s not real, and should be eradicated. To the Israelis and their supporters that is just offensive."
"It seems like the thaw is spreading regardless of the political back and forth which is to be expected and kind of normal," he added.
Indeed, Rouhani has made a point of trying to overcome the perception that Iran’s leadership is anti-Semitic and to convince American and Israeli Jews that he harbors no ill will against them. On Sept. 4, a Twitter handle associated with President Rouhani wished "all Jews" a Happy Rosh Hashanah. And he invited a Jewish-Iranian lawmaker to join his delegation during the visit to the United Nations this week.
But Netanyahu made it clear he isn’t buying Rouhani’s kinder, gentler version of the Iranian regime. Speaking just days after President Barack Obama’s historic phone call with Rouhani, Netanyahu appealed to a gathering of U.N. dignitaries to cast a skeptical eye on Iran’s pledge to cinch a nuclear deal, saying Tehran has repeatedly employed diplomatic outreach in the past to disguise its plans to build a nuclear bomb.
The Israeli leader said that while Rouhani’s conciliatory rhetoric sets him apart from his confrontational predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both remain committed to the same goal: developing a nuclear bomb. "Now I know Rouhani doesn’t sound like Ahmadinejad," Netanyahu said, "but when it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program the only difference between them is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing: Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community."
Netanyahu’s address to the U.N. General Assembly followed a week of intensive diplomatic exchanges between the United States and Iran, including a big power meeting of foreign ministers that brought U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif together at U.N. headquarters to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. The flurry of exchanges culminated with Obama’s phone call to Rouhani, marking the first direct conversation between U.S. and Iranian leaders in more than 30 years.
Obama is exploring a possible diplomatic opening with his Iranian counterpart, who has pledged to rebuild Tehran’s relationship with Washington and its Western allies. The two leaders have instructed their top diplomats to work with other world powers to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear intentions.
"We have to see if in fact they are serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law and international requirements and resolutions, " Obama said on Monday, following a meeting with Netanyahu. "But we enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed, they will not be easy and anything that we do will require highest standards of verification."
The United States, its European allies, and Israel believe Tehran is enriching uranium to fuel a nuclear weapons program. Iran claims that it has no intention to build a nuclear bomb, but it needs an indigenous capacity to enrich uranium to meet its own energy needs.
Netanyahu accused Rouhani — who previously served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003-2005 — of being the "mastermind" of a diplomatic strategy that allowed Tehran to advance its nuclear weapons program "behind a smokescreen of diplomatic engagement and very smooth rhetoric…. He fooled the world once, now he thinks he can fool it again. Rouhani thinks he can have his yellow cake and eat it, too."
The Israeli leader recalled that the international community had once placed hopes in the prospect of a diplomatic resolution to another nuclear crisis: in North Korea. In 2005, the Bush administration reached an agreement with Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief, fuel, and other commercial incentives. A year later, Netanyahu recalled, the North Koreans tested their first nuclear bomb.
The Israel leader said the "only diplomatic solution" to the nuclear crisis is to "fully dismantle Iran’s nuclear program and prevent it from having one in the future. A meaningful deal, he said, would require the cessation of Iran’s uranium enrichment, the transfer of enriched uranium out of the country, and the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to eliminate its ability to produce plutonium and establish a "break out" capacity to quickly start a weapons program. In the meantime, he said, the international community must maintain tough sanctions and a credible threat of force.
Iranian diplomats said Netanyahu’s "inflammatory" remarks were calculated to "mislead" the U.N. General Assembly about Iran’s intentions, only this time "without [the aid of a] cartoon drawing."
"All Iran’s nuclear activities are, and have always been, exclusively for peaceful purposes," Seifi said. "We believe building mutual trust is possible only by resorting to the force of logic, not the logic of force. The solution is neither through threat or sanctions."