Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered some rare, if fleeting, hope Thursday in regard to his country's relationship with Iran.
In an interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, he said the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani "might" offer an opportunity for diplomacy and that he would "consider" meeting him.
"I don't care about the meeting. I don't have a problem with the diplomatic process," Netanyahu said.
"You're saying you would meet him?" Steve asked.
"I haven't been offered. If I'm offered, I'd consider it, but it's not an issue. If I meet with these people I'd stick this question in their face: Are you prepared to dismantle your program completely? Because you can't stay with the [nuclear] enrichment."
Netanyahu went on to cast doubt on the new, more moderate rhetoric coming out of Tehran. He said the Iranian people picked the "least bad" of the candidates, but said that Rouhani was offering "a fake deal." He said he'd be "delighted" by a diplomatic solution that's "real." But then, slipping into American colloquialism, he let Steve know how he really feels about Iran's softer overtures: "This is all hogwash. What they say is nonsense."
Of course, Netanyahu's comments come after a whirlwind U.S. trip by Rouhani. He gave a speech at the U.N. in which he left all the caustic rhetoric of his predecessor behind and called for "prudent moderation." He said it was in Iran's best interest to be transparent with the international community to ensure confidence in its nuclear program.
As Rouhani headed to the airport, he received a historic phone call from President Obama. It was the first time the heads of state of the two countries have spoken directly since 1979, and it signaled just how serious talks between the U.S. and Iran have gotten. During his own speech at the U.N., President Obama said he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue a deal with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
Remember, relations between the U.S. and Iran have been strained over what the U.S., Israel and other Western countries say is Iran's march toward making a nuclear weapon. Iran has always maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
In his interview with NPR, Netanyahu dismissed that argument, saying Iran does not need to enrich uranium if it wants to use it for nuclear energy and for medical devices.
"The reason they insist on enrichment is because they want to maintain the path to nuclear weapons," Netanyahu said.
That's when Steve told him that one question reasonable people ask when he travels around the Arab world is: If Israel can have nuclear weapons, why can't Iran?
"What is the reasonable answer to that question?" Steve asked.
"We'll I'm not going to say what Israel has or doesn't, but I will say Israel has no designs to destroy anyone; we've not called for the destruction of a people, the annihilation of Iran or any other country," Netanyahu said.
He added, "If we've learned anything from the history of the 20th century and not only from the 20th century, is that a regime with unbridled, radical ambitions should not get awesome power, because once they do, they will unleash it."
Much more of Steve's conversation with Netanyahu will air on Friday's Morning Edition. Click here for your NPR member station.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left the U.S. last night after giving a series of warnings against Iran. And he delivered one of those warnings to Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We met him in a New York hotel room. He sat and talked with a book in his hands. He was in New York for the annual meeting for the United Nations General Assembly. Iran's newly elected president, Hasan Rouhani, was the star attraction here, taking a celebrated phone call from President Obama. The U.S. and European powers negotiate soon over Iran's nuclear program, a prospect that fills the Israeli prime minister with doubt.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: You want a deal? Fine. I will be the first one to applaud it. If we can get a diplomatic solution as opposed to a military solution, I would be delighted. But it has to be a real solution, not a fake solution, not a partial solution.
INSKEEP: That's what the Israeli prime minister has said all week in interviews and in a tough speech at the U.N. He started the week meeting President Obama at the White House to talk about meaningful action against Iran.
NETANYAHU: We were discussing at great length, for about three hours, what is meaningful action. And I appreciate that on a day when he had a meaningful...
INSKEEP: Government shutdown.
NETANYAHU: ...a government shutdown. But, obviously, we were discussing the shutdown of Iran's nuclear weapons program, and that's the critical thing. The critical thing is we want to make sure that we shut down Iran's ongoing efforts to achieve nuclear weapons.
INSKEEP: Iran's President Rouhani denies his country wants nuclear weapons, as Iran has denied for years. Netanyahu doesn't believe it. He notes that Iran's president used to be Iran's nuclear negotiator, and acknowledged his country continued its nuclear progress even as he was talking with the West. Reaching a deal now with Iran might take some give and take, some level of trust, some risk. Netanyahu insists on a different approach: keep brutal sanctions imposed on Iran until it surrenders everything worrisome about its nuclear program.
It sounds like you're saying that if, at some point in the diplomatic process, President Obama calls you up and says we need to take a little risk here, we need to take a leap of faith, your answer is going to be no. This is not appropriate.
NETANYAHU: I don't think anybody should take a leap of faith with a regime that systematically defies Security Council resolutions, that's cheated twice, whose chief negotiator said this is my strategy: cheating. He wrote a book about it. It's called "National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy."
INSKEEP: You brought the book here, I see.
NETANYAHU: I bought the book. We got the book. We actually read it. He's an open book. He's an honest deceiver. He says this is what this book is about. I am honestly telling you how I deceived the West.
INSKEEP: Let me ask you about something, prime minister, because I understand from your statements that you do not trust this man. You point out correctly that he's been part of the regime for a long time - President Rouhani. At the same time, I was in Iran at the time of their election, and he was elected by a substantial majority of the Iranian people on a platform where he explicitly said I want to improve relations with the world.
NETANYAHU: Sure. Why not?
INSKEEP: Which suggests that there's going to be pressure on the regime to improve relations with the world. If they fail, they will be shown to have not followed their own people's will. Isn't this a moment of opportunity?
NETANYAHU: It might be, if you continue the pressure. It's true that his election reflected the tremendous disaffection of the Iranian people with this regime. But, you know, he was - you know what the regime did, what Khamenei did: He took 700 candidates, eliminated 99 percent, left 1 percent - some democracy. And out of that 1 percent, the Iranian people chose the least-bad that they could get, which was Rouhani.
INSKEEP: So, what is the opportunity now?
NETANYAHU: So, I think this reflects, undoubtedly, his election reflects that disaffection. But he is a servant of the regime. And what he's offering is to - and he said he wants to relieve the sanctions. The way he wants - what he wants to do is relieve the sanctions, but advance the program, which is essentially what he did in 2003. He just wants to repeat it on a bigger scale. And here's what he's saying now: We'll have a partial lifting of the sanctions. What do you think will happen when you have partial lifting of the sanctions? You'll probably have a full collapse of the sanctions regime, because there are many countries in the world that are waiting to abandon the sanctions. So that's their strategy.
INSKEEP: Would you meet Rouhani, if you had an opportunity to do that somewhere in the world?
NETANYAHU: Yeah, I don't care about the meeting. I mean, I don't even - I don't have a problem with the diplomatic process. I have the problem - my question...
INSKEEP: You're saying you would meet him?
NETANYAHU: I haven't been offered, and I don't - you know, if I'm offered, I'll consider it. But it's not an issue, because I don't think - you know, if I meet with these people, I would stick this question in their face: Are you prepared to dismantle your program completely?
INSKEEP: Prime Minister, when I have traveled in Iran, and when I've traveled in Arab countries, you, as you can imagine, you hear a variety of things about Israel, a variety of things about Jews, very many prejudiced statements. And at the same time, you do hear from more thoughtful people who ask questions that can harder to answer. One of them would go something like this - people will ask: Why can't we have nuclear weapons, since Israel has them? What is a reasonable answer to that question?
NETANYAHU: Well, I'm not going to say what Israel has or doesn't have. But I will say Israel has no designs to destroy anyone. We've not called for the destruction of a people, the annihilation of Iran or any other country. But that's exactly what Iran's doctrinaire, messianic apocalyptic regime - it's a terrorist regime. A terrorist regime bent on world domination, seeking to navigate their way cleverly to the point where they have awesome power should not be allowed to achieve it.
INSKEEP: What's the answer to that question about what people see as a double standard?
NETANYAHU: Well, Israel - I think Israel is not the issue. And, in general, in the Middle East, the issue is not those who signed the NPT, the Non-Proliferation Treaty...
INSKEEP: People also asked why Israel hasn't signed Non-Proliferation...
NETANYAHU: Well, you should look at those who signed it. See, the signing of it is meaningless, because Syria signed it. It was developing, you know, facilities for nuclear weapons. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, signed it. It was developing nuclear weapons - twice, actually - from the 1970s on. And Iran signed it, and it's developing these nuclear weapons, developing ICBMs. If they want civilian nuclear energy, fine. They can import fuel rods the way 17 countries do. If they want medical isotopes - I don't know if Bolivia imports medical isotopes. So many countries do. This is all hogwash. What they say is nonsense. And, you know, I am 64 years old this month. I've decided, you know, just say it like it is. I mean...
INSKEEP: Because you were restraining yourself before?
NETANYAHU: Yeah, I was restrained. This is jargony. This is so, you know, this is so simple: Don't have nuclear weapons, Iran. You know, and I think people say, well, I'm the only one who's saying it. No, I'm not. I finished my U.N. speech, dozens of ambassadors - you know, they can't clap, you know, there are cameras and, you know, it's all political correctness. They come around, in the back. They shake my hand and they say: Prime minister, you spoke for us. I don't have to tell you what the Arab countries are thinking. Many in Europe, many elsewhere, they get it. Sure, we all want to see a genuine diplomatic and peaceful solution. But, no, we don't want to be hoodwinked. We're not gullible. We're not suckers.
INSKEEP: Prime Minister Netanyahu, thanks very much.
NETANYAHU: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Steve Inskeep sat down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.