Herzog: With or without a deal, Iran’s nuclear program ‘must be neutralized’

President calls Islamic Republic ‘a ticking time bomb that threatens Israel and the whole Middle East’; Gantz says Jewish state working with allies to determine how to proceed

President Isaac Herzog speaks during a ceremony for graduates of the Israeli Air Force's pilot course, at the Hatzerim airbase in southern Israel, on December 22, 2021. (Screen capture: YouTube)
President Isaac Herzog speaks during a ceremony for graduates of the Israeli Air Force's pilot course, at the Hatzerim airbase in southern Israel, on December 22, 2021. (Screen capture: YouTube)

President Isaac Herzog called on Wednesday for Iran’s nuclear program to be “neutralized” regardless of whether an accord is inked between Tehran and world powers.

“Iran is a ticking time bomb that threatens Israel and the whole Middle East,” Herzog said at a ceremony for graduates of the Israeli Air Force’s pilot course.

“I am following the negotiations surrounding the nuclear deal, and I call on the international community not to be led astray and not to underestimate the gravity of the threat,” he added. “The Iranian nuclear threat must be neutralized once and for all, with or without an agreement. Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities.”

Speaking at the same ceremony, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that Israel — and the Israeli Air Force in particular — was developing the capabilities needed to deal with the “major threats facing us,” in an apparent reference to Israeli plans to strike Iran’s nuclear program.

He said Israel was working with its allies to determine how to proceed against Iran, amid growing concerns that the Islamic Republic will become a nuclear threshold state, capable of developing an atomic weapon in a short time.

“Israel has never instigated a war. It always relied on and worked with its allies, chief among them the United States, and always acted with international responsibility and took personal responsibility for the security of its citizens,” Gantz said.

The president’s and defense minister’s comments came after meetings with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who is visiting Israel amid talks in Vienna on restoring the 2015 accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (L) meets with President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem on December 21, 2021 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Accusing Iran of stalling the talks in order to “play for time” and advance its nuclear program with relative impunity, Gantz called on world powers to “flip over the hourglass and show the regime in Iran that time is working against them.”

He added: “We are speaking with our partners, as we speak, about the correct ways of doing so.”

Herzog’s Tuesday meeting with Sullivan focused largely on Iran, with the president expressing “concern with Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons under the cover of the negotiations in Vienna,” according to his office.

In a Wednesday meeting between Sullivan and Gantz, “a variety of strategic and cooperative issues were discussed, chief among them the Iranian nuclear fight and Iran’s regional aggression,” Gantz’s office said, noting that IDF chief Aviv Kohavi and director-general of the Defense Ministry Amir Eshel also attended.

Sullivan also met Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to discuss Iran and the talks in Vienna.

“These days are pretty important,” Bennett told Sullivan in public remarks in English ahead of their Wednesday meeting. “What happens in Vienna has profound ramifications for the stability of the Middle East and the security of Israel for the upcoming years. And that’s why it’s such a timely meeting.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem on December 22, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Sullivan told the prime minister that US President Joe Biden sent him to Israel “even just before Christmas” to coordinate and cooperate on their approach to Iran and other security issues.

“At a critical juncture for both of our countries on a major set of security issues, it’s important that we sit together and develop a common strategy, a common outlook, and find a way forward that fundamentally secures your country’s interests and mine,” said Sullivan. “And we believe those interests, like the values upon which our countries are built, are deeply shared and deeply felt.”

Lapid said that he and Sullivan “discussed the strategy for combating Iran’s nuclear program and the way in which the US and Israel cooperate on this issue.”

The meetings come as European diplomats warn that nuclear negotiations in Vienna to secure a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran are “rapidly reaching the end of the road.”

In a blow to European mediators, Iran requested a new pause in the talks, which aim to bring the United States back into the agreement and roll back Iran’s nuclear activities. The Islamic Republic publicly stepped up its nuclear projects after the US withdrawal from the deal in 2018.

The talks had resumed in late November after a five-month break following the election of a new hardline government in Iran.

During a press briefing with reporters on Sunday, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the White House was not particularly optimistic about the talks, but was not giving up hope.

We are “curbing our enthusiasm for where we are and where we might go. There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Price. “What the team experienced on the ground in Vienna until the talks adjourned late last week, it was progress, but it wasn’t at a pace that was sufficient to get us to where we need if we are to render the JCPOA as a viable vehicle going forward.”

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