Netanyahu's Mistake: Exposing Iran's Wolf in Moderate Clothing

Last Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu again proved that he is perhaps the best performer in the political arena in the world, even better than President Obama. His talent for phrasing, rhythm, and cadence is unsurpassed, as is his ability to create a dramatic structure for his speeches. He delivered. The points he scored were impressive.

But he forgot an essential element.

We now know that President Barack Hussein Obama talked to president Hassan Rouhani (in Iran, jokes about these names -- Hussein and Hassan were brothers in Islamic history -- arise as flowers in the spring). President Obama cannot completely exclude the idea that President Rouhani is the very beginning of the “Iranian Spring,” and many commentators agree with him. Christiane Amanpour interviewed President Rouhani, and she -- and her entire CNN staff -- heard him saying words that other people did not hear, like the complicated word “holocaust.” According to her, President Rouhani is a moderate and a reformer, so she hears moderate and reforming things.

Many in the Obama administration also think that is the case, and that under Rouhani’s leadership the Islamic Republic of Iran is heading towards a new phase in its existence. As long as he is not the wolf in sheep’s clothing that Bibi Netanyahu claims he is.

Barack and Hassan talked with each other, and we may assume that they did not talk about the seasons but about how to proceed with talking. Both presidents are brilliant talkers about talking, so we may rejoice in looking forward to many talks about talking. But both Barack and Hassan have had problems since their phone call. For Barack, the problem is that now that they have talked, he owns the issue of talking with Iran. As long as a raving madman like Hassan’s predecessor was around, it was relatively easy to avoid direct responsibility for the issue of Iran’s nuclear project. There were no official talks, and threats about distant actions were enough to calm public opinion.

Obama has no intentions of risking a war for the sake of Israel or the Gulf states. But that period of distance is gone since he started talking. He has to work on a peaceful solution. He does not have the luxury of ignoring his partner in Tehran.

Hassan has a similar problem: he pretends to be a moderate, which means he has to talk and walk as a moderate, which could enrage the conservatives in the Tehran establishment who cannot stand moderate talking. Hassan has to cover the nuclear project of the conservatives while talking moderately to Hussein. Can he pull this off? In the past he could, wonderfully. But he is now a president, and he is being watched carefully. Imagine how the American Congress must react upon finding out the talks were just, well, talks.

Netanyahu does not buy the idea that President Hassan is a moderate man, with good reasons, and he explained those reasons in his UN speech.