I was in the General Assembly when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his speech about Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Iran’s nuclear program. I heard a very different speech from the one described by The New York Times and other media. Not surprisingly, the Iranians described it as “inflammatory”. More surprisingly, The New York Times described Netanyahu’s speech as aggressive, combative, sarcastic and sabotaging diplomacy, while the only expert it quoted called the speech ineffective and pushing the limits of credibility.
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What I heard in the Assembly bore little relationship either to the Iranian or the New York Times characterizations. What the people at the talk heard was a compellingly persuasive speech using Rohani’s own words to prove convincingly that his friendly smile is a cover for far more malignant intentions. Herein are a few excerpts not quoted in the Times report. First, with regard to Iran’s nuclear weapons program:
There are those who would readily agreed to leave Iran with a residual capability to enrich uranium. I advise them to pay close attention to what Rouhani said in his speech to Iran's…Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council. This was published in 2005. I quote:…
“A county that could enrich uranium to about 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent. Having fuel cycle capability virtually means that a country that possesses this capability is able to produce nuclear weapons."
Precisely. This is why Iran's nuclear weapons program must be fully and verifiably dismantled. And this is why the pressure on Iran must continue.
Next, several statements Rohani made with regard to human rights, terrorism and constructive engagement:
Rohani spoke of, quote, "the human tragedy in Syria." Yet, Iran directly participates in Assad's murder and massacre of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Syria. And that regime is propping up a Syrian regime that just used chemical weapons against its own people.
Finally, Netanyahu’s answer to Rohani’s assurance that his country does not engage in deceit and secrecy:
Last Friday Rohani assured us that in pursuit of its nuclear program, Iran - this is a quote - Iran has never chosen deceit and secrecy, never chosen deceit and secrecy. Well, in 2002 Iran was caught red-handed secretly building an underground centrifuge facility in Natanz. And then in 2009 Iran was again caught red-handed secretly building a huge underground nuclear facility for uranium enrichment in a mountain near Qom.
Nor did Netanyahu reject diplomacy. Indeed he welcomed it, so long as the diplomatic solution “fully dismantles Iran’s nuclear weapons program and prevents it from having one in the future.”
The New York Times was particularly critical of Netanyahu's oft-repeated statement that if Iran were to be on the verge of developing nuclear weapons designed to wipe Israel off the map, “against such a threat Israel will have no choice but to defend itself.” But this statement reflects not only Israel’s longstanding policy but American policy as well. President Obama has told me, as he has told others, that Israel must reserve the right to take military action in defense of its own civilian population. It cannot be expected, any more than we can be expected, to outsource the ultimate obligation of every democracy to protect its citizens from nuclear attack. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy made it clear that the United States would not accept nuclear weapons pointed at our cities from bases in Cuba. Does anybody really expect Israel to accept nuclear missiles directed at its cities and towns from an even more belligerent enemy sworn to its destruction?
Those of us who were in the General Assembly chamber to hear Netanyahu’s speech heard a rational call for diplomacy backed by sanctions and the ultimate threat of military force as a last resort. It heard the leader of America’s ally, Israel, carefully analyze the words and deeds of the leader of a nation that still describes the United States in the most bellicose of terms. It was one of the most compelling and effective speeches ever delivered at the United Nations. It should be read—or watched on YouTube—by every American, who should then compare what they have seen and heard with what the media told them was said.
Several media outlets misinterpreted President Rohani’s speech to make it sound far more acceptable than it would have been had it been correctly translated. The media claimed that Farsi is a difficult language to translate. There was no such excuse with regard with PM Netanyahu’s speech, which was delivered in crystal clear English. The distortion of the Israeli’s Prime Minister’s speech was a deliberate attempt to portray him in a less favorable manner than his actual words warranted.
The question remains: Why would the American media bend over forwards to place Rohani in a positive light while bending over backwards to present Netanyahu in a negative light? Is it because we place our understandable hope for peace over the reality that difficult barriers that still exist? Is it because a “friendly” Iranian head of state is a more interesting story than a realistic Israeli head of state?
Whatever the reason, distorting reality is neither in the interest of good reporting nor in the interest of peace. If diplomacy is to succeed, it must be based on realpolitik and a hardnosed assessment of both our friends and our enemies. Judged against those standards, the media reporting on the Rohani and Netanyahu speeches did not meet the high standards rightly expected of American journalism.
Alan M. Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, is a practicing criminal and constitutional lawyer and the author, most recently, of The Trials of Zion. His autobiography, “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law”, will be published this month.