Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday urged the world to insist on tough negotiations that ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon — while cautioning against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's charm offensive, which he described as a strategy carried out to woo the West at the behest of the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
"[The Iranian people] are governed not by Rouhani. They're governed by Ayatollah Khamenei. He heads a cult. That cult is wild in its ambitions and its aggression," Netanyahu told NBC News' Andrea Mitchell.
The prime minister also criticized Rouhani's tone as duplicitous.
"He calls the shots, Khamenei. [Rouhani] tells him — he tells his boss, the dictator of Iran, 'I can get you the completion of the nuclear program by speaking nicely to the West. I can — what [former President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad tried to do with a frown, I'll do with a smile,'" Netanyahu said.
Parts of the interview will air Wednesday evening on NBC Nightly News, with more on Thursday morning on Today. The full interview will air Thursday afternoon on MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports.
Rouhani has indicated an interest in a deal on Iran’s nuclear program — with hopes that harsh sanctions imposed on the country would be lifted if it negotiated more with the West.
Iran has said its program is peaceful and Rouhani last month said the country will never develop nuclear weapons, but the West has long suspected — and Israel insists — that Tehran has designs on a nuclear bomb.
In an address to the United Nations General Assembly last week in New York, President Barack Obama said the United States is determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, but would not interfere with the country’s peaceful exploration of nuclear energy.
At that General Assembly, Rouhani struck a more moderate tone than his predecessor, Ahmadinejad, which was seen as a step in the right direction by some foreign policy observers.
But Netanyahu on Wednesday cautioned that the only difference between the two presidents is a difference in style, not policy, and that Iran's goal continues to be the development of nuclear weapons.
"Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf's clothing. And Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing. But it doesn't mean we should let him...pull the wool over our eyes," he told Mitchell.
"I say, distrust, dismantle, verify,” he added.
Netanyahu said he is open to a diplomatic solution that would dismantle Iran's nuclear program, but said the key was to maintain the pressure through sanctions and a credible military threat.
"They're on the ropes. If you want to knock out Iran's nuclear weapons program peacefully, then don't let up the pressure," Netanyahu urged. "Keep the sanctions up. And that will prevent Iran from arming itself. And that, too, will prevent the next war. Be firm to prevent the next war."