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‘A heavy price’: Bennett says Israel expects IAEA to send clear message to Iran

Addressing Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, PM hails passing year as a ‘turning point’ in nation’s strategy against Tehran

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) speaks to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, June 7, 2022 (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) speaks to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, June 7, 2022 (Haim Zach/GPO)

As the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors convenes in Vienna, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday called on the watchdog to send a clear message to Iran over advances in its nuclear program.

“We expect the IAEA Board of Governors to place a clear warning light in front of the regime in Tehran, and make it clear that if it continues in its defiant nuclear policy, it will pay a heavy price,” said Bennett, addressing the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The IAEA Board of Governors is meeting Monday through Friday in Vienna, and is expected to censure Iran for the first time since June 2020.

The anticipated resolution, drafted by the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, urges Iran to “cooperate fully” with the UN agency.

Bennett met IAEA chief  Rafael Grossi in Israel on Friday.

“He arrived for a snap visit in Israel, and I made Israel’s stance clear — that we are operating and will continue to maintain our freedom of action to act against Iran’s nuclear program as long as necessary; with an agreement, without an agreement, nothing ties our hands,” Bennett said, flanked by committee chairman Ram Ben Barak and National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) meets with Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on June 3, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

On Monday, a senior Israeli official said that international diplomatic pressure is mounting on Iran over its nuclear program, which could result in the issue being referred back to the UN Security Council, an outcome Israel would welcome.

“This decision will for the first time put diplomatic pressure on Iran,” the official said. “Diplomatic pressure that hasn’t been fully and seriously applied since the talks about the return to the JCPOA began,” he added, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The prime minister returned in his Knesset address to his go-to metaphor of the Iranian octopus, stressing that Israel is not only attacking its tentacles — armed proxy groups — but also the head in Tehran.

“The days of immunity, in which Iran strikes Israel again and again and spreads terror through its regional proxies but remains unharmed — those days are over,” he said.

Iran has reportedly been trying to retaliate for several high-profile assassinations and mysterious deaths in the Islamic Republic in recent months, including of senior IRGC official Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei and a top scientist.

Khodaei’s assassination was the most high-profile killing inside Iran since the November 2020 killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Mourners gather around the coffin of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards colonel Sayyad Khodaei during a funeral procession at Imam Hussein square in the capital Tehran, on May 24, 2022. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Israel, which has not officially commented on the incident, reportedly raised the security alert level at its embassies and consulates around the world, fearing a retaliatory Iranian attack. An unnamed intelligence official told The New York Times that Israel told US officials it was behind Khodaei’s assassination. However, this was later denied by Ben Barak, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair.

Bennett, in his remarks Tuesday, called the past year a “turning point” in Israel’s strategy against Iran.

The quietest year in Gaza since 2005

He opened his comments to the committee — a review of his first year in office — with a discussion of the Gaza border area.

Bennett pointed out that only six rockets have been fired thus far in 2022, which he called “the quietest year since the [Gaza] disengagement [plan]” in 2005.

“This is not coincidence,” he said. “It is the result of a clear and determined policy — attacks for every [incendiary] balloon, and a determined stance in the face of Hamas’s blackmail and violence.”

However, Bennett did not lay out any vision for a truce or agreement with Hamas, which last fought a major campaign against Israel in May 2021.

Bennett closed by praising Israel’s public diplomacy efforts, led and coordinated by the National Public Diplomacy Directorate.

“In all the recent events, as difficult as they were, we were there to deal with it, to quickly bring facts to refute, and we handled dozens of incidents that would have come at a heavy cost were it not for the quick hasbara handling,” he said, using the Hebrew term for public diplomacy.

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