Liberman to Mattis: Iran is ‘greatest threat’ in Middle East ‘and beyond’

As he hosts Israeli counterpart, US secretary of defense warns that confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria is becoming more likely

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman enter the Pentagon for their meeting, Thursday April 26, 2018, at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman enter the Pentagon for their meeting, Thursday April 26, 2018, at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told his American counterpart, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, that “the greatest threat to the stability of the Middle East” is Iran.

The two met Thursday at the Pentagon, together with the top uniformed soldier in the US military, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, to discuss “recent developments in the Middle East, especially Iran’s efforts to entrench itself in Syria,” according to a statement from Liberman’s office.

At the meeting, Liberman reportedly told Mattis, “I want to express our appreciation for the extraordinary cooperation” between the two governments, “and hope we can translate the results of this meeting into meaningful steps on the ground.”

Israel is working with the Trump administration on beefing up — or canceling — the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, as well as urging the US to keep troops in Syria and help Israel fend off Iran’s growing military forces in the country.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, second left, and its ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, wait for a meeting with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon, April 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

Asked by an Israeli journalist from the Walla news site if the US planned to leave the nuclear accord, Mattis replied that the US has not yet decided.

Asked if he believed constant Iranian weapons shipments into Syria were intended to be used in a future conflict with Israel, Mattis suggested they were, telling reporters he could not think of another reason for the shipments.

Liberman praised US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.

“The greatest threat to the stability of the Middle East, and beyond, is the Iranian attempt to undermine stability in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and of course its nuclear ambitions,” Liberman told Mattis.

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (2nd R) speaks as Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (3rd R) listens during a bilateral meeting with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, April 26, 2018 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

Liberman left on a trip to the US on Tuesday night to meet top American defense officials for talks on Iran and Syria, his office said.

In addition to Mattis, he met the newly appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton, as well as members of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, which has considerable influence over the US military and defense policy.

At a hearing in Congress Thursday, Mattis warned that a military confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria is becoming increasing likely. “I can see how it might start, but I am not sure when or where,” he said. “I think that it’s very likely in Syria because Iran continues to do its proxy work there through Hezbollah.”

He accused Iran of “bringing advanced weapons for Hezbollah through Syria,” and noted that Israel “will not wait to see those missiles in the air. And we hope Iran would pull back.”

According to a statement from Liberman earlier this week, his visit was to focus on “Iran’s expansion throughout the Middle East and on the Syria issue,” as well as Israeli-American security cooperation.

“I will also take advantage of the opportunity to thank our American friends for transferring the embassy to Jerusalem — the perfect gift for the 70th anniversary celebrations,” Liberman wrote in a tweet.

The defense minister’s visit to Washington comes during a period of particularly heightened tensions between Iran, Israel and the US.

Iran, which has called for the destruction of the Jewish state, is considered Israel’s primary nemesis, funding terrorist groups that carry out attacks against Israeli civilians and troops. Israel, therefore, has designated Iranian entrenchment in Syria as unacceptable, something it will work to prevent militarily if necessary.

Over the past two weeks, Israeli and Iranian officials have swapped increasingly bellicose threats following an airstrike on an alleged Iranian drone facility located on a Syrian air base on April 9. Iran, Russia, and Syria have all claimed Israel was behind the attack. Israel refuses to comment on the strike.

In addition, Trump is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether or not America will remain part of the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Trump has long criticized the agreement, most recently calling it “insane” on Tuesday.

“This is a deal with decayed foundations. It’s a bad deal, it’s a bad structure. It’s falling down,” Trump said.

He has set himself a May 12 deadline, by which point he must make a decision whether or not to bring back sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Trump has indicated that he will remain part of the deal if significant changes are made to it.

The JCPOA required Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions — but leave most of its nuclear infrastructure intact — in exchange for relief from the crippling sanctions that had been imposed on it.

The deal’s critics argue that the “sunset clauses” in the JCPOA, periods of time after which Iran can begin enriching uranium, mean that the country is not actually prevented from developing a nuclear weapon, but is merely delayed. Others argue that international inspectors are not able to freely investigate locations like military facilities, something which may be exploited by Iran in order to violate the deal without getting caught.

In addition, the nuclear deal is narrowly focused and does not address the country’s ballistic missile programs or its support for terrorist groups and dictators across the Middle East.

“I think we will have a great shot at doing a much bigger, maybe, deal,” said Trump. “We’re going to see what happens on the 12th.”

The other signatories of the JCPOA — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and Germany — have either expressed hesitance at these proposed changes or outright opposition.

However, on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Trump in the White House to discuss the JCPOA and indicated that some progress has been made to keep the US part of the deal.

“I can say that we have had very frank discussions on that, just the two of us,” Macron told a joint press conference with Trump at his side.

“We therefore wish from now on to work on a new deal with Iran,” he said.

Macron clarified that he did not mean the JCPOA would be scrapped, but rather that it would be the “first pillar” in an expanded effort to rein in Tehran, which would address the nuclear deal’s “sunset clauses,” as well as the Iranian ballistic missile program and its support of terror groups across the Middle East.

Judah Ari Gross and agencies contributed to this report.

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