Austria’s Kurz to Rouhani: ‘Unacceptable’ to question Israel’s right to exist

‘Austria is unconditionally committed to the security of Israel and its citizens,’ says chancellor as Iranian president visits to salvage nuclear deal

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (r) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani give a joint press conference following a meeting on July 4, 2018 at the Chancellery in Vienna. (AFP/Alex Halada)
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (r) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani give a joint press conference following a meeting on July 4, 2018 at the Chancellery in Vienna. (AFP/Alex Halada)

In a joint press conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Wednesday said he considered it “absolutely unacceptable” to question the right of Israel to exist or call for the Jewish state’s destruction.

Ahead of the meeting in Vienna, Kurz had said he would speak plainly with Rouhani about Iran’s role in the Middle East, as Tehran continues to deny accusations it is destabilizing the region.

The Austrian leader also condemned those who trivialize the Holocaust, in comments apparently directed at Iranian behavior, and said Vienna was “unconditionally” committed to Israel’s security.

“The concerns of Israel have to be taken seriously. Austria is unconditionally committed to the security of Israel and its citizens,” said Kurz, according to a statement from an official spokesperson.

“During this memorial year we are particularly aware of our historic responsibility. We strongly condemn all forms of anti-Semitism as well as any form of downplaying or denial of the Holocaust,” he added.

Iranian leaders have openly called for Israel’s destruction and the Islamic Republic funds terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas with similar stated aims.

In Geneva on Tuesday, Swiss President Alain Berset said that in bilateral talks with Rouhani he had underscored “the need to recognize the state of Israel,” prompting a reply from the Iranian president that Tehran viewed “the Zionist regime as an illegitimate regime,” responsible for fostering conflict in the region.

Last month, to mark Al-Quds Day, Rouhani sent a message to the nation, saying, “I believe the land of Palestine will be returned to owners of the land with the help of god.” He also told reporters that, “Israel can never feel that it is in a safe place.” During the event demonstrators chanted, “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.”

The Austrian leader had visited Israel last month, during which he pledged to “raise awareness” of Israel’s special security needs in Europe. During that visit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled Israel was stepping up contacts with Vienna, heaping praise on his counterpart and appearing to signal a thaw in Jerusalem’s freezing out of a far-right coalition party that has been accused of Nazi links.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

The government headed by Kurz includes the far-right Freedom Party, which Israel boycotts due to its past as a haven for neo-Nazis and its current xenophobic policies.

Israel has forcefully opposed the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, its arch-foe, and world powers. The Jewish state has also been lobbying world powers and acting to remove Iranian troops from southern Syria over fears Tehran could entrench militarily and launch attacks on the Jewish state from the neighboring country.

Rouhani was in Vienna on the second leg of his European tour to seek assurances over the 2015 nuclear deal. The trip was clouded by the arrest of an Iranian diplomat over an alleged bomb plot against opposition exiles in Paris.

Hoping to boost economic cooperation to help offset the return of US sanctions following Washington’s pullout from the historic deal, Rouhani arrived late Tuesday in Vienna — the city where it was signed.

“Insofar as it is possible for Iran, we shall remain party to the accord, we shall not quit the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) on condition that we can also benefit from it,” Rouhani said.

“If the other signatories, apart from the United States, can guarantee Iran’s interests then Iran will stay in the JCPOA,” he insisted.

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press after announcing his decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran during a speech from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House on May 8, 2018. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

In a move staunchly backed by Israel, US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the agreement nearly two months ago, to the ire of the other signatories — China, France, Germany, Britain and Russia — which along with the European Union have continued to back the accord.

“We need a balance between our duties and the hypothesis of restrictions…. We hope for decisive actions regarding trade and the economy,” added Rouhani in comments sending a message to the other deal signatories, whose foreign ministers are due to meet in Vienna on Friday for the first time since Trump’s decision to dump the deal.

Austria just took up the European Union’s six-month rotating presidency, while Vienna is the home of the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, which monitors Iran’s compliance with the accord.

Rouhani’s European trip will be of “prime importance” as it could “provide a more precise picture of cooperation between Iran and Europe,” the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said at the weekend.

The Iranian government has itself warned that it will not continue to abide by the nuclear agreement if doing so goes against its economic interests.

Rouhani, re-elected in 2017, met Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen on Wednesday, and with Kurz later in the day.

‘False flag ploy’

The nuclear deal has been the cornerstone of Rouhani’s policy of greater openness with the West, and the US departure has seen him severely criticized by ultra-conservatives at home.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has demanded Europe provide a number of economic guarantees in order for Tehran to continue its commitment.

Increasing the pressure on Iran’s European partners, he ordered preparations be made to quickly restart nuclear activities in case talks collapse.

Rouhani’s visit follows reports of the Iranian diplomat’s arrest along with five others over a purported foiled attack on a rally of thousands of Iranian opposition supporters in Paris.

Rouhani has not changed his program over what his foreign minister dismissed as a “false flag ploy” designed as a distraction.

“How convenient: Just as we embark on a presidential visit to Europe, an alleged Iranian operation and its ‘plotters’ arrested,” Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.

Just hours before welcoming Rouhani to Austria, Vienna summoned Iran’s ambassador and announced that the unnamed diplomat’s status would be withdrawn.

The diplomat attached to the Iranian embassy in Austria, who was detained in Germany, was believed to be a contact of a couple at the center of the alleged plot.

He may soon be extradited to Belgium, which is spearheading a probe into the alleged bomb plot, prosecutors told the German news agency DPA.

“We are waiting for full clarification” on the case, Kurz said at a press conference alongside Rouhani.

Zarif, who is accompanying Rouhani, will on Friday meet top envoys from the five powers for the first time since Washington’s withdrawal.

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