Organizers of the Munich Security Conference on Friday hurriedly rearranged the agenda for their Sunday morning sessions, after Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said he was relishing the original itinerary, on which he was scheduled to share a platform, unprecedentedly, with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The organizers cancelled the 9:45-11:05 a.m. session, and replaced it with a series of separate statements, with Zarif now set to speak an hour before Liberman, and another panel discussion in between them, leaving no likelihood of the two men encountering each other.
Liberman and Zarif were set to be two of four participants in a session entitled “Old Crises, New Middle East?,” which was to have been moderated by the BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu were the other two participants.
In an interview from Munich on Friday evening, Liberman indicated he was looking forward to the meeting, saying he hoped Zarif would stay in the room to hear “exactly what I think about the ayatollahs’ regime in Tehran.”
Liberman said he would state at the session what he had already been telling a succession of defense ministers in meetings at the conference: “The biggest danger to the stability of the entire Middle East is Iran. Iran with all its nuclear plans, and its attempts to blow up every state, and to harm the stability of every country – it doesn’t matter if it is Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, or Israel.”
Hours after Liberman made his comments, however, the Munich conference organizers remade the Sunday morning agenda.
Rather than grouping the four speakers together for a single session, with Doucet as moderator, the program was rearranged, with Zarif now set to speak at 9 a.m., a panel on US policy placed at 9:20 a.m. and Liberman speaking at 10:05 a.m. followed separately by Turkey’s Cavusoglu and Saudi Arabia’s al-Jubeir.
The Munich conference organizers did not immediately publicize the change.
There is no recent precedent for serving senior Israeli and Iranian ministers to share a public platform in the way the conference agenda originally indicated. Iran repeatedly encourages the demise of what it calls the Zionist regime.
Earlier Friday, Zarif had tweeted a criticism of Israel, without naming it.
The Israeli defense minister said on Friday evening that he intended to tell the session that Iran is the greatest threat to Middle East stability.
“I hope Foreign Minister Zarif will be in the hall when I speak,” Liberman told Israel’s Channel 2 in an interview from the conference.
The only regime in ME with nukes, ICBMs & a history of aggression whines about Iran's means of defense. Fear-mongering hype IS fake news.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) February 17, 2017
He said he had discussed the threat posed by Iran with the defense ministers of the US, Canada, Britain and Singapore, as well as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Each of his interlocutors understood the message, Liberman said.
The annual weekend gathering is known for providing an open and informal platform for allies — and adversaries — to meet in close quarters.
Liberman’s office said early Friday that the defense minister would “be speaking before the Iranian” at the session as it was originally planned. And Israel Radio said there would be no dialogue between the two.
— Eran Cicurel (@EranCicurel) February 17, 2017
Earlier Friday, Liberman held his first meeting with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis on the sidelines of the conference, and told him that Israel has “three main problems that it is dealing with: ‘Iran, Iran and Iran.’”
Following their meeting, the two agreed to work “with determination against Iran,” according to Liberman’s office.
In the meeting — their first since Mattis took up his position last month — Liberman called for the creation of a “real and effective” anti-Iran coalition that will tackle “the terrorism that [Iran] sends out to the world, the missile development it has been working on and its race to nuclear armament,” according to a statement from his office.
Liberman said Iran and North Korea, which has its own nuclear program, are part of the same “axis of evil” that also includes “Hezbollah and the [Bashar] Assad regime in Syria.”
The defense chiefs said they intended to have “open and frank” lines of communication to improve cooperation, according to Liberman’s office.
Liberman and Mattis had previously spoken only by phone. The two spoke on January 26, soon after Mattis was confirmed by the US Senate as secretary of defense. Then too they spoke about the need to “advance the US-Israeli defense relationship” and also to “protect Israel’s qualitative military edge.”
In an interview Thursday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was speaking up on behalf of the whole region that is threatened by a malevolent Iran, and that this is bringing Israel and its Arab neighbors closer together.
Netanyahu told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that although he was the most outspoken against the Iran nuclear deal, Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were quietly saying the same thing.
“The Arab countries sort of whisper things in the dark; they wouldn’t say it outright,” he said. “I had to sort of speak out for everyone in the region.”
“Iran has become more aggressive, more deadly, sponsoring more terrorism,” Netanyahu, who was visiting the US, told Hannity. “With more money. And people are saying ‘wait a minute, this roaring tiger, if it’s not stopped, it will devour all of us.”
Meanwhile, Iran on Thursday said Israel’s reported nuclear arsenal was the biggest threat to world peace. Israel is the “biggest threat to the peace and security in the region and the world,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said, quoted by state news agency IRNA.
Much of the attention at this year’s meeting has focused on world leaders getting their first opportunity to meet with members of the Trump administration amid concerns over the new president’s commitment to NATO and posture toward Russia.
Vice President Mike Pence, Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly are leading the US delegation to the conference, which opened Friday.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, European Council President Donald Tusk and NATO’s Stoltenberg are among the group of more than 30 heads of state and government, 80 foreign and defense ministers and other officials expected to attend.
Others expected to be on hand include Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
AP contributed to this report.