A tale of two speeches: Rouhani and Netanyahu at UN General Assembly

By Farhang Jahanpour*

With the progress of the talks in Geneva between Iran and the six world powers (the so-called P5+1) on 15 and 16 October, there is growing optimism about a lasting solution to Iran’s nuclear program and to the resumption of relations between Iran and the United States after 34 years of estrangement. After an hour-long power-point presentation by the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, which he called “closing unnecessary crisis, and opening new horizons”, Michael Mann, the spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who is leading the talks for the P5+1 group, described the Iranian proposal as “very useful” and said: “For the first time, very detailed technical discussions took place.” (1)

The exact choice of words was also repeated by a senior US official taking part in the talks. After the formal talks between the two sides, there was another US-Iran bilateral meeting between the chief US representative in the talks, Ms. Wendy Sherman, and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi who led the Iranian delegation after the Iranian foreign minister’s original presentation. This was the second time after the meeting of Iranian and US foreign ministers in New York that senior officials from the two sides had had a bilateral meeting.

So, all the indications are, that at long last the two sides are reaching agreement not only on Iran’s enrichment program, but also on a geopolitical reorientation of the Middle East and closer relations between Iran and the West that can result in the resolution of many Middle Eastern crises, from Syria and Lebanon, to Iraq and Afghanistan and to the issue of security in the Persian Gulf region.

However, this positive mood is not universally welcome. The extremists both in Iran and the United States are so used to the decades of mutual demonization that they find it hard to give up their irrational fear of and hostility to the other side. One of the greatest obstacles to a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the West is the Israeli prime minister’s apprehensions about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons at some point in the future, as well as the loss of Iran as a bogyman to justify Israel’s regional policies and her special relationship with the United States. The speeches delivered by the Iranian and Israeli leaders at the UN General Assembly provide us with an understanding of how the two sides view Iran’s relations with the West and, therefore, it is useful to analyze the two talks in some detail.

The speeches by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly on the first day of the session on 24th September, (2) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on the last day of the session on 1st October 2013 (3) served as bookends to a UN General Assembly session that was dominated by Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s message of reconciliation with the West and the Israeli rebuttal of that message.

Mr. Rouhani’s four-day visit, in addition to the speech at the UN, included a number of closed-door meetings and many public addresses and television interviews, including a long speech and question and answer session at the Asia Society/Council on Foreign Relations meeting at Hilton Hotel. (4) The visit ended with a landmark telephone conversation with President Obama, which was the first direct contact between an Iranian and American president in 34 years and which could mark the start of a new era of cooperation between the two countries.

It should be noted that Iranian-US relations started in the middle of the 19th century when Iran was wary of British and Russian colonial interests during the so-called Great Game, and when she turned to the United States as an impartial and trustworthy Western power. Shortly after Iran’s Constitutional Revolution (1905-11) Iran turned to American economists to help her restructure her finances and the Americans Arthur Millspaugh and Morgan Shuster were even appointed treasurers-general by the governments of the time.

During World War II Iran was invaded by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, but while after the war British forces left Iran as had been promised, Soviet forces held on to some northern territories and it was pressure by the US government that forced the Soviet Union to withdraw her forces, thus preventing the partition of Iran.

Relations between Iran and the United States reached their peak under the second Pahlavi Monarch Mohammad Reza Shah (reigned 1941-1979) when Iran was regarded as the main pillar of US Middle East policy. During that time Iran purchased billions of dollars worth of weapons from the United States, and thousands of US military advisors helped to train Iranian military forces. There were also extensive economic, cultural and political exchanges between the two sides.

The Iranian revolution of 1979, and especially the hostage crisis, totally reversed those friendly ties and replaced them with mutually hostile relations that have continued right to the present time, something that the new Iranian government has promised to change.

In his address to the UN General Assembly, Mr. Rouhani spoke about a world facing many fears and yet daring to hope. He said: “Our world today is replete with fear and hope; fear of war and hostile regional and global relations; fear of deadly confrontation of religious, ethnic and national identities; fear of institutionalization of violence and extremism; fear of poverty and destructive discrimination; fear of decay and destruction of life-sustaining resources; fear of disregard for human dignity and rights; and fear of neglect of morality. Alongside these fears, however, there are new hopes; the hope of universal acceptance by the people the elite all across the glove of ‘yes to peace and no to war’; and the hope of preference of dialogue over conflict, and moderation over extremism.” (5)

He praised the Iranian people for having opted for hope, rationality and moderation in their recent presidential election, and spoke of “the firm belief of our people and government in enduring peace, stability, tranquility, peaceful resolution of disputes and reliance on the ballot box as the basis of power, public acceptance and legitimacy.”

Regarding Iran’s nuclear program, he assured the world that Iran’s program was entirely peaceful, adding: “I declare here, openly and unambiguously, that, notwithstanding the positions of others, this has been, and will always be, the objective of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nuclear weapon and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions. Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”

He also spoke about “the human tragedy in Syria that represents a painful example of catastrophic spread of violence and extremism in our region.” He condemned terrorism by saying: “Terrorism and the killing of innocent people represent the ultimate inhumanity of extremism and violence. Terrorism is a violent scourge and knows no country or national boundary.” At the same time he condemned the use of drones against innocent people in the name of combating terrorism.

He added: “People all over the world are tired of war, violence and extremism. They hope for a change in the status quo. And this is a unique opportunity – for us all. The Islamic Republic of Iran believes that all challenges can be managed – successfully – through a smart, judicious blend of hope and moderation. Warmongers are bent on extinguishing all hope. But hope for change for the better is an innate, religious, widespread, and universal concept.”

He concluded his remarks with a line from the great 10th century Persian poet Ferdowsi who wrote:

“Be relentless in striving for the cause of Good
Bring the spring, you must, Banish the winter, you should.”

And with a Koranic verse referring to the Psalms and the Torah: “And We proclaimed in the Psalms, after we had proclaimed in the Torah, that My virtuous servants will inherit the earth.” (21: 105)

Rouhani’s speeches and interviews produced a very positive response in America and the West as a whole. Before the telephone conversation between the Iranian and American presidents, there was a face-to-face meeting between the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (5+1) to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. After that meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister had a 30-minute private meeting and both sides described the talks as useful and constructive. It was decided that the next round of talks between Iran and the 5+1 should be held in the middle of October for more substantive discussions.

It should be pointed out that after returning to Iran and reporting to the Iranian parliament, 230 parliamentarians, out of the total of 290, signed a statement expressing their support for Rouhani in presenting the image of a “powerful and peace-seeking Iran which seeks talks and interaction for the settlement of regional and international issues.” (6)

Professor Gary Sick, one of the foremost experts on Iran-US relations who served on the US National Security Council under President Carter, in a superb op-ed in the New York Review of Books wrote: “As the Iranians emphasized in their private meetings, this favorable constellation of interests and individuals who are willing to take risks for détente in the wake of Rouhani’s unexpected electoral victory earlier this year can never be repeated.”

He wisely cautioned: “In the next few weeks, there will be a barrage of assertions by international officials and commentators that the Iranian offer is a sham and should be rejected. Some of those comments will come from Israel and from the US Congress, but there will be others from Saudi Arabia and the Arab monarchies, all of whom fear a US-Iranian rapprochement as a threat to their own narrow interests.” (7)

It did not take long for the most extreme form of negative reaction to Rouhani’s overtures to rear its ugly head.

After all these historic developments that promised a new era in Iran-US relations and a possible resolution to Iran’s nuclear program and a more peaceful Near East, it was the turn of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the UN General Assembly. While Rouhani’s speech had been measured and conciliatory, Netanyahu’s was rude, provocative and totally rejecting of Rouhani’s conciliatory tone.

It should be noted that prior to coming to the United States, for the first time since the revolution, Rouhani used his twitter account to wish the Jews in Iran and the world a Happy Rosh Hashanah, and contrary to his predecessor whose remarks about the Holocaust had caused a great deal of controversy, Rouhani strongly condemned the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis as a most reprehensible act. On his return to Iran, Rouhani’s government cancelled an annual anti-Israeli conference that had been started by President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad in 2005. (8)

In his speech at the UN Rouhani did not mention Netanyahu or Israel once by name, but Netanyahu referred to Rouhani 25 times and to Iran and Iranians 70 times, which topped the word “Israel” which was mentioned 24 times, with no mention of Palestine and only a few passing references to the Palestinians. He devoted only a few lines to the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and he put the blame on the Palestinians for the failure of the talks.

He said: “Six Israeli prime ministers, myself included, have not succeeded at achieving peace with the Palestinians. My predecessors were prepared to make painful concessions. So am I. But so far the Palestinian leaders haven’t been prepared to offer the painful concessions they must make in order to end the conflict. For peace to be achieved, the Palestinians must finally recognize the Jewish state, and Israel’s security needs must be met.”

Coming back to his favorite topic of Iran, Netanyahu described the Iranian President Rouhani, as a liar, as a charlatan, as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and accused him of being responsible for many crimes, none of which has been proven. He said that Iran with a bomb was worse than 50 North Koreas, and compared Iran’s behavior to those of Europe’s fascist dictatorships of the 20th century. In trying to provide a catchy phrase, reminiscent of his crude cartoon bomb that he used in his speech last year, he said Mr. Rouhani “thinks he can have his yellowcake and eat it too.”

In addition to its angry tone and name calling, the speech was full of factual inaccuracies. He misquoted Rouhani as having said: “While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in Isfahan.” He claimed that in 2002 Iran had been caught red-handed secretly building an underground centrifuge facility at Natanz, that in 2009 Iran had been again caught red-handed secretly building a huge underground nuclear facility for uranium enrichment near Qom, that Iran was preparing to build a plutonium path to a bomb, that since Rouhani’s election there had been a vast and feverish effort to continue the process of manufacturing a bomb, etc.

These, and many other such allegations, have been authoritatively rebutted by experts in the field, (9) but many pro-Israeli commentators and even some Congressmen have seized upon them as evidence of Iran’s bad faith.

Netanyahu is not content with international supervision of Iran’s nuclear activities, but wants Iran to stop nuclear enrichment altogether. His solution was: “distrust, dismantle and verify.” This was particularly jarring coming from the Prime Minister of a country that has refused to join the NPT and has the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East. He urged the international community to continue and indeed to intensify pressure on Iran, because only “tough sanctions and credible military threats” will compel Rouhani to negotiate.

He basically threatened that if the rest of the world fails to act, Israel would be prepared to go to war on her own. He said: “Against such a threat Israel will have no choice but to defend itself. 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.”

After his speech at the UN, he engaged in a frenzied media campaign at home and abroad spreading his apocalyptic message. (10) Even after the Geneva talks between Iran and the P5+1, Netanyahu was even more radical than before and again evoked the threat of a pre-emptive strike on Iran. (11)

In a long interview with the BBC’s Television Channel in Persian on 5 October 2013, Netanyahu insulted 18.5 million Iranians who had voted for Rouhani out of seven other candidates by saying that Iranian people had not elected him. He also showed his unfamiliarity with what is going on in Iran by saying that if Iranian young people were free they would wear jeans and listen to Western music. (12) In that interview he called on Iranians to topple the clerical government and said that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons Iranians will not be able to topple the regime.

In all the stances that he adopts about Iran, Netanyahu tries to portray himself as someone who is very knowledgeable about Iran and knows intimate things that others do not know. However, his interview showed that he is completely out of touch with modern realities in Iran. His remarks about Iranian people not being able to wear jeans gave rise to a great deal of ridicule as large number of Iranian bloggers poste photos of Iranians of all walks of life and of all ages wearing jeans and also listening to Western music. (13)

Referring to the exaggerations in Netanyahu’s speech, Gary Sick rightly observed: “He was so anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually pushed the limits of credibility.” (14) Not only did Western observers object to the tone of Netanyahu’s speech, many prominent Israelis also condemned his remarks. Alon Pinkas, the former Israeli Consul General in the United States, in an article in the Haaretz, referring to Netanyahu’s earlier remarks about Israel standing alone on Iran, wrote: “PM Netanyahu is both foolish and plain wrong to criticize President Obama by stating that Israel can only rely on itself to act on Iran.” (15)

In many ways, Netanyahu looks desperate and diminished as the result of his obsession with Iran. In fact, Netanyahu’s ill-tempered and belligerent speech showed that it was not Iran, but Israel, that was the stumbling block to reaching an agreement with the West. By doing so, he has painted himself and Israel into a corner, leaving no option but to either escalate confrontation with Iran, or if the West reaches an agreement with Iran for it to be seen as a defeat and a retreat by Israel.

The most encouraging point is that Netanyahu’s views do not represent the views of the majority of Israelis. According to a recent poll, 78% of Israelis are skeptical about Netanyahu’s performance. Also a number of polls of American Jews have shown that the majority of American Jews do not support Netanyahu’s extremist policies and in most cases they are opposite of the Israeli prime minister. (16)

One can sympathize with many Israelis who may feel vulnerable being surrounded by hostile neighbors, although some of that hostility is due to Israel’s foreign policies as well as the way it treats the Palestinians. However, the time that Israel was defenseless against many powerful neighbors has long passed. Today, Israel is the military superpower in the Middle East even without her nuclear weapons; as for a long time the United States has ensured Israel’s qualitative edge over all her neighbors combined.

Therefore, now is the best time for the Israelis to let go of their fears and pursue a new course.

Syria is destroyed, Egypt is in turmoil and will not pose a military threat to Israel for a very long time, if ever, and now with Iran proclaiming publicly that they have no intention of manufacturing nuclear weapons and also saying that they would accept any deal reached between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israelis can really relax and give peace a chance.

Their main problem is domestic not foreign. What they have to do is to reach an honorable and viable agreement with millions of stateless Palestinians, rather than look for real or imaginary enemies outside their borders.

Netanyahu’s vision of the Middle East belongs to the past. Netanyahu and Ahmadinezhad needed each other and fed off one another. With Ahmadinezhad gone, Netanyahu must feel very lonely.

There is an old Cold War story that Dobrynin once threatened Kissinger that the “worst thing that we can do to you is to deprive you of an enemy.” Now, Ahmadinezhad who was perceived as an enemy is gone, and Netanyahu finds it hard to live without him. The best sign that change in Iran is for real is the reaction of the reformists to President Rouhani’s policies at home and abroad.

There is still a long way to go, but many reformists including political prisoners have put their support behind Rouhani and his détente with the West and are hoping for more moderate policies at home and abroad.

The senseless animosity between Iran and Israel must be put to rest. It would have been too much to have expected Ahmadinezhad to change his views, even if he saw a more moderate stance by the other side. The same is true of Netanyahu. However, the Israelis deserve better than constantly looking back to a period when they were victims of aggression from outside. The Middle East has changed, and Iranians have also opted for change and for a more peaceful and democratic future. It is time for the Israelis to take yes for an answer, and at least test the new Iranian openness. May be Israel needs its own change of outlook, similar to what has happened in Iran under President Ruhani.

The 2,500-year old history of cordial relations between Iranians and Jews should not be thrown away as the result of an old and exaggerated fear of mythical Amalekites. (17) Indeed, with closer relations between Iran and the West there is every hope that Iran and Israel will also move closer together. Instead of trying to prevent this rapprochement between Iran and the United States, the friends of Israel should encourage and support it.


1. See Scott Peterson, “Iran nuclear talks: no news may be good news”, Christian Science Monitor, 15 October 2013.

2. President Hassan Rouhani’s UN General Assembly speech

3. Transcript of Benjamin Netanyahu’s UN General Assembly speech

4. See the recording of the speech.

5. All excerpts from Rouhani’s and Netanyahu’s speeches taken from the links provided above.

6 See Reuters Report, “Iran parliament endorses President Rouhani’s diplomatic outreach.”

7 See Gary Sick, “Iran Opens Its Fist”,The New York Review of Books, September 24, 2013

8 See AP report: “New Iran Government scraps anti-Israel conference”, 11 October 2013

9 For an excellent analysis of nuclear-related points in Netanyahu’s speech see an article written by Peter Jenkins, a British career diplomat who among many other distinguished postings has served as UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN in Vienna, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree”, LobeLog, October 1, 2013

10 See, Jodi Rudoren, “Netanyahu Takes a Lonely Stance Denouncing Iran” New York Times, October 11, 2013,

11 See: “Netanyahu’s Threats Ring Hollow Amid Iranian Proposals”, LobeLog, 15 October 2013,

12 BBC interview with Netanyahu, 5 October 2013.

13 See Juan Cole, Netanyahu and Iranian Jeans: Ironies of Modernity and Tradition, Informed Comment, October 8, 2013,

14 See: “New York Times Indicts Israeli Leader for Speech Exposing Iran”, Camera, October 4, 2013,

15 See: “Netanyahu’s remarks on Iran: a cheap shot at Obama” in Haaretz,

16 See Juan Cole, “On how American Jews are Mostly the Opposite of Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu”, Informed Comment, October 3, 2013

17 See: Daniel Luban, “Goldberg and the Amalekites”, LobeLog May 17, 2009.

* Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan and former Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University. For the past 28 years he has been a tutor in the Department of Continuing Education and a member of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford.

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