Netanyahu calls Iran's Rouhani 'wolf in sheep's clothing'

Israel's leader devotes his UN speech to warning of the dangers of engagement with Tehran

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday sought to pour cold water on attempts by newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's to woo the international community, calling him a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and a "servant" of Iran's "fanatic regime". Netanyahu used his entire speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to rail against the regime in Tehran

"Rouhani doesn't sound like Ahmadinejad, but when it comes to Iran's nuclear program, the only difference between them is this – Ahmadinejad is a wolf in wolf’s clothing, Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing," Netanyahu said.

The Israeli leader accused Rouhani of embarking on a "charm offensive," in which he paid "lip service to peace, democracy and tolerance" in an effort to convince the international community to lift economic sanctions imposed on Iran for its failure to suspend uranium enrichment.

Iran maintains that is conducting a peaceful nuclear-energy program. Last Tuesday, Rouhani addressed the U.N. General Assembly himself, stating that "nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions."

However, foreign governments – including the United States  – are skeptical of Tehran's claims that the purpose of its nuclear work is exclusively peaceful, and Israel believes Iran is striding rapidly towards building a nuclear weapon.

On Friday, President Barack Obama spoke with Rouhani by phone, in what was the first conversation between U.S. and Iranian state heads in over 30 years. After the conversation, Obama said he believes the two countries could reach a comprehensive solution to the impasse over Iran's nuclear program.

'Unfounded accusations'

After meeting with Netanyahu in Washington Monday evening, Obama said the U.S. would "test diplomacy" to see if Iran was "serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law."

Netanyahu, however, remained doubtful on Tuesday.

"I wish I could believe in Rouhani, but I don’t," he told the U.N. General Assembly, before adding that Israel would give diplomacy a chance, but was ready to "stand alone" if it had to.

"Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map. Against such a threat, Israel will have no choice but to defend itself," he said, in what was clearly a reference to the possibility of unilateral Israeli military strikes.

Khodadad Seifi, a deputy ambassador at Iran's U.N. mission, characterized Netanyahu's speech as "extremely inflammatory" and categorically rejected his "unfounded accusations." Seifi also asserted Iran's "sovereign right" to a peaceful nuclear program.

Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at New York University, said in terms of Iran's change of tone on the world stage, "the Israelis are not buying it."

Netanyahu "was very clear that if the international community doesn't act, Israel is prepared to act alone," Ben-Meir told Al Jazeera's Morgan Radford.  

Ben-Meir said that while the Iranian government would be unhappy with Netanyahu’s remarks, the Israeli prime minister's comments should not be dismissed.

"If I were Iranian, I would not take it lightly. I don't believe any prime minister would bluff in this regard," Ben-Meir said. "If he comes to the conclusion that U.S. is not prepared to act, I think Israel will act on its own."

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report with Al Jazeera

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