Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to US Congress dominated the headlines in Iran on March 4. But it was not just the Israeli prime minister’s words that were met with hostility and aggression. Hardliners also took issue with influential politician and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who they said had pandered to US demands and fostered further political divisions in the country.

Rafsanjani, who currently heads Iran’s influential Expediency Council, caused a stir when he compared hardliner tactics with those of Netanyahu. At a time when the government’s priority was nuclear negotiations, Rafsanjani said the “worriers” — those politicians who have repeatedly criticized the Hassan Rouhani administration’s approach to talks — have been as much of an obstacle to a positive outcome as the Israeli prime minister.

“Netanyahu agitates Obama, while “concerned Iranians” threaten to “expose government secrets” in order to block an agreement, Rafsanjani said. In his opinion, parliament serves as an influential forum for hostile, conservative voices, and politicians take every opportunity to “jam” progress.

But parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani said Rafsanjani’s analogy was cynical and unfair, and hardliner MP Hamid Resaee went further, even accusing Rafsanjani of forming alliances with Israel during the 2009 presidential election.

The daily newspaper Vatan-e Emrooz, which has been very vocal in its opposition to nuclear negotiations, said it was Rafsanjani who bore resemblance to Netanyahu, working hard to destroy any outcome that could benefit Iran. At the same time, he sought to protect Rouhani and his supporters, making it easy for the administration to blame its political opponents should negotiations fail. And, crucially, it argued, he was paving the way for Iran to accept “what the Americans dictate.”

“Netanyahu is against nuclear negotiations and the [interim] Geneva Agreement because he believes that the US must not make even a few worthless concessions to Iran,” Hamid Resaee said. “Whereas those who criticize the current negotiations demand to know why the government has so easily conceded, and seems happy to make do with a few meager promises in return.”

 

A Phony Display — and a Reason to Be Afraid

Dismissing the Israeli prime minister as a “bully” and a “phony,” hardliner politicians and journalists also took the opportunity to assert Iran’s military might and superiority.

Ali Larijani called Netanyahu “ridiculous, clumsy and a bully,” who was all talk. The Israeli government is “bogus,” he said, and Netanyahu’s trip to Washington was political posturing aimed at boosting his chances in Israel’s forthcoming elections. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham also dismissed Netanyahu’s speech as a deceitful show and nothing more than electioneering propaganda from an extremist.

Netanyahu's talk about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran for the region, Larijani said, came from “an entity that has been leaning on 200 nuclear warheads for many years” and yet calls for immediate action against Iran’s potential nuclear capabilities. “This is disgraceful bullying at the international level,” he said.

Responding to speculation about the possibility of Israel taking military action against Iran, Larijani issued a direct challenge: “If US Congress wants to take its bastard child back after it’s in a wheelchair, let Israel take military action. It will experience a crushing response from Iran’s armed forces.”

The government-owned daily Iran agreed. “In confronting America’s most important foreign policy and historical challenge in the region, the Israeli prime minister is attempting a kind of political suicide so that he will become the champion of Jewish radicalism today and the hero for tomorrow’s inferiority complex after Iranian diplomacy defeats him.”

Javan, a newspaper with close ties to the Revolutionary Guards, also ridiculed the Israeli leader, as did Kayhan, which is published under the supervision of the office of the Supreme Leader. But again, like Rasaee, the paper launched attacks against Iranian supporters of the Geneva Agreement. “It is now clear that Zionists’ and others’ opposition to negotiations and to a [nuclear] agreement is nothing but a smokescreen. Their problem is not the nuclear activities of the Islamic Republic, but the nature of our whole political system.”

The website Asr-e Iran also interpreted recent comments as direct threats, and proceeeded to make a few of its own: “If there is no agreement, Netanyahu would undoubtedly be very happy. But his happiness would not last long. His next speech to Congress would be about Iran’s nuclear power. He would no longer need to talk about cartoons of the bomb. He will perhaps have real photographs of Iran’s nuclear tests to show Congress, and appeal to it to do everything possible to prevent a nuclear attack against Israel.”

Reformist media and media more closely aligned to President Rouhani’s administration also acknowledged the showy quality of Netanyahu’s speech — a “puppet show,” as Etemad put it. Pro-Rouhani newspaper Arman set out to distinguish the US government from Netanyahu by giving prominence to the fact that President Obama did not watch the live broadcast of the Israeli prime minister’s speech.

But was not alone in this tack: when lashing out, Speaker Larijani was careful not to refer to President Obama. As part of his evidence to demonstrate that Netanyahu was a liar, he even quoted Obama, who had referred to some of the Israeli prime minister’s expectations as unrealistic. Hashemi Rafsanjani also criticized Netanyahu for pressuring Obama.

What will unfold in the coming weeks is as yet unclear. But what is clear is that Iranian officials and politicians are keeping a close eye on the rift between Obama and Netanyahu — or at least taking an opportunity to use it to their advantage. And, as usual, the battle between the hardliners and Rouhani's supporters continues.

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