Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the U.N. General… (Timothy Clary / AFP/Getty…)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday accused Iranian President Hassan Rouhani of waging a deceitful "charm offensive" to get sanctions lifted while secretly pushing ahead on a quest to build nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu's address to the United Nations General Assembly sought to dispel a mood of cautious optimism created last week when Rouhani pledged to resolve the nuclear dispute and ease more than 30 years of hostility between Iran and the United States.
The Israeli prime minister called Rouhani "a wolf in sheep's clothing, who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community." When it comes to Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions, Netanyahu said, Rouhani differs from his confrontational predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, only in that "Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf's clothing."
Netanyahu vowed that Israel would take whatever steps necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, even if that requires going it alone with a preemptive military strike.
"Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly vows to wipe us off the map," he said.
He reminded the annual gathering of world leaders of the "lessons of the 20th century," alluding to the Holocaust. He warned that when radical regimes are allowed to acquire "awesome power," their "appetite for aggression knows no bounds."
The Iranian government is under intense pressure from its people to win sanctions relief, with oil revenue tumbling and Iran's currency having lost half its value.
"That's why Rouhani got elected in the first place, and why he has launched his charm offensive," Netanyahu said of the moderate leader inaugurated two months ago. "He definitely wants sanctions lifted, but he doesn't want to give up Iran's nuclear weapons program in return."
Netanyahu urged the West to stand tough on sanctions.
"The international community has Iran on the ropes," the Israeli leader said. "If you want to knock out Iran's nuclear weapons program peacefully, don't let up on the pressure."
The Iranian delegation at the U.N. gathering issued an immediate denial of Netanyahu's accusations, describing his speech as "saber rattling."
"We strongly reject possession of nuclear weapons by any nation," the Tehran diplomats said in a statement. They reiterated Rouhani's promise last week "to faithfully engage in meaningful, time-bound and result-oriented negotiations."
Netanyahu noted that Rouhani is a former national security chief and lead negotiator on the nuclear issue, saying he designed a strategy of "smiling a lot" while pressing ahead with centrifuge construction and uranium enrichment. The Israeli leader also said Iran was continuing work on a heavy-water reactor in Iraq to have a second path toward nuclear missiles fueled by plutonium.
Reactions in Israel appeared mostly supportive.
Danny Dayan, a leader of the settler movement, told Israel's Channel 1 television that Netanyahu's speech contained "only facts." Lawmaker Zehava Galon expressed doubt that Iran's nuclear works were exclusively civilian but said the path of diplomacy must be given a chance.
Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.