TOKYO — Rapprochement with Iran won't come at the expense of Israel's security or its relationship with the United States, top Obama administration officials said Thursday, but they said it would be "diplomatic malpractice" not to explore whether Iran's nuclear program can be defused peacefully.
The forceful defense of engagement made by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit here with their Japanese counterparts was the first high-level U.S. answer to a blistering rebuke by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Tuesday that the West is being fooled by the new, friendlier face of Iranian leadership being offered by President Hassan Rouhani.
"I did not interpret Prime Minister Netanyahu's comments as suggesting that we are being played somehow for suckers," Kerry said. "I understood it to be a warning: Don't be played."
Iran does not recognize Israel and has said the Jewish state must be destroyed. Netanyahu told the United Nations that Israel would act alone to prevent a bomb if no other nations were willing.
That was a direct challenge to the Obama administration, which has repeatedly pledged to take military action against Iran if diplomatic efforts fail. Nothing about the new diplomatic effort with Iran changes that bottom line, Kerry and Hagel said.
Kerry praised Rouhani for bucking hard-liners at home to reach out and propose substantive new talks about an advanced nuclear program in his country.
Iran has pledged to bring an offer to disarmament talks on Oct. 15 in Switzerland. It is seeking relief from crushing economic sanctions that have been imposed by the international community as its nuclear program advanced.