Iran-U.S. rapprochement: what’s Netanyahu afraid of?

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Typically, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cherishes his visits to the U.S., especially his annual pilgrimage to U.N. General Assembly’s podium. He relishes the opportunity to demonstrate his rhetorical skills, which he honed as a young diplomat to the U.N. in the 1980s.

For him, the U.N. is a hostile arena in which he has to convincingly lay out Israel’s case in the face of adversity. In recent years he also had to navigate prickly relations with President Obama, mainly through ensuring wide support in the U.S. Congress and American public opinion. He has also used these occasions in front of the General Assembly to rally public support at home, mainly by striking the “us against the world” chord in Israel.

Memorable antics from his speech last year included a clumsy diagram he showed to delegates, which was supposed to demonstrate that Iran was approaching the point of “no return” in her nuclear project, something that Israel couldn’t tolerate.

One year on

Netanyahu does not believe in confidence building measures between Iran and the U.S. to create a more conducive atmosphere for negotiations and mutual concessions.

Yossi Mekelberg

A year later and Netanyahu was greeted by a very different atmosphere in New York. The re-elected President Obama can afford to be more assertive, in his relations with Netanyahu. Even more significant is the newly elected Iranian president, Hassan Rowhani, a diametrically different persona to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The former president was a dream come true for Israel’s public relations machine with his vitriolic and offensive language which provided Israel with the justification, if she needed any, that nuclear military capability in the hands of the likes of Ahmadinejad makes the world a distinctively more dangerous place.

This changed dramatically this year with the rapprochement between Iran and the U.S., which began before Rowhani arrived in the U.S. but was enhanced by his charm offensive on his visit. His repeated declarations that Iran has no intention to develop nuclear military capability and is ready to enter into serious negotiations about her nuclear project, has made a marked difference, at least in atmosphere.

Moreover, the exchange of letters and the phone call between Obama and Rowhani, the first between leaders from both countries in more than 30 years and John Kerry’s suggestion that a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme could be reached relatively quickly, left a sense of imminent change in the air.

Israel's views

However, these developments left Israel surprised, perplexed and above all, worried. Netanyahu’s quite aggressive speech this year to the U.N. aimed to convince the international community that behind Rowhani’s smiles hid a deceitful person who couldn’t be trusted, and whose sole aim was to succeed in buying some time for his country to develop nuclear weapons.

Supposedly, Israel should be satisfied with recent developments. For years, it maintained that the international community should keep, even tighten, the sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Iran until it relented and accepted an internationally verified process which would ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme is intended for peaceful means only.

The election of the more pragmatic presidential candidate, Rowhani, back in June, can be attributed to an extent, to the worsening economic conditions in Iran as a result of the international sanctions and the fear of military attack. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an interview with the ABC network, made the connection between Iranian readiness to open her nuclear sites to inspections, and the removal of the economic sanctions, which adversely affect the Iranian economy.

Why then is Israel so dismissive in her response to this new diplomatic initiative? To put it simply, the answer is that Israel does not trust either Iran’s intentions or the stamina of the P5+1 to conclude the negotiations in a manner which is conducive to Israel’s interests.


This week Israeli officials stressed that they are not impressed by words and that they want to see a verified process which will stop Iran from reaching weapon grade uranium enrichment in Fordo and Natanz. It is estimated that Iran has around 18,000 centrifuges, most of them “IR-1” from the older generation, and around 1,000 of them are of the newer generation “IR-2.” Israel is afraid that until negotiations resume in Geneva later this month, Iran will continue to enrich uranium.

However, it is not just a matter of trust, it also a matter of tactics. For years, Israel has effectively used the threat of potential military action against the Iranian nuclear programme as a means of persuasion to encourage the international community to become proactive in stopping Iran from achieving nuclear military capability. The decision makers in Israel have known all along that acting alone militarily against Iran has innumerable risks not only for Israel, but also for the region and the international community. Hence the credible threat of a military operation was convincing enough for the international community which is itself apprehensive of nuclear proliferation, especially in a region as unstable as the Middle East.

In the face of scepticism

In this sense what happened at the U.N. last week should be reassuring for Israel’s security. Not only is Iran ready for negotiations about its nuclear programme, but the U.N. Security Council has also unanimously adopted a binding resolution which might see Syria stripped of its chemical weapons by the middle of next year. These two developments which should have made Netanyahu’s visit to the U.N. this year more relaxed than some of his previous ones.

However, his speech to the U.N., as much as his press conference with Obama in the White House, disclosed his deep scepticism over whether such a process could succeed without a credible military threat and not only the continuation of sanctions, but actually the tightening of them. Netanyahu does not believe in confidence building measures between Iran and the U.S. to create a more conducive atmosphere for negotiations and mutual concessions. True to his real politik approach he sees the use of power as the main instrument of successful foreign policy and if the Iranians are to comply with international demands to bring their nuclear programme under supervision, the pressure should not lessen, but intensify. Nevertheless, the demands to dismantle the Iranian nuclear capabilities completely, not only the ones which can lead to military capability, are less realistic, and are more a reflection of a bleak view of the world in general.

No one in the U.S. administration has suggested that sanctions in Iran should be lifted without substantial progress in negotiations. Nevertheless, bringing these tough negotiations to a satisfactory conclusion will need to take into account Iranian sensitivities in order to build trust. Furthermore, it is important to empower those in Iran’s complex political system who are willing to enter into a constructive dialogue on their nuclear programme. The language of threats and sanctions can only achieve so much, and humiliating those who champion change in Iran, who are taking personal and political risks in embarking on this course of action, might yield very little. These complex negotiations will require patience and a mutual understanding of both countries needs and sensitivities. Netanyahu’s speech to the U.N. reveals his worries about the international affairs philosophy:

“Iran is on the ropes” and only continuing the sanctions “will knock out Iran’s programme peacefully.”

Unfortunately, this approach might push Israel to the margins of this debate with little influence on an issue which it claims has existential importance for Israel.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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