Netanyahu heads to Europe to talk about ‘Iran and Iran’

Prime minister says he will urge British, German, and French leaders to apply more pressure to quell Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and counter Iranian entrenchment in Syria

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated Iran would be the first and only subject on his agenda when meeting with European leaders this week, as he took off for Berlin Monday.

Netanyahu was to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel later in the day followed by meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May in the coming days.

Speaking to press before he left, Netanyahu stressed that he had “a very close and very good personal connection” with all three of the leaders and that he would raise with them two subjects: “Iran and Iran.”

“First of all we need to continue the pressure on Iran against its nuclear program,” the prime minister said. “I believe that pressure should be increased. It may be that on that issue there isn’t full agreement at the moment, but in my opinion over time such an understanding will crystallize.”

“The second subject is halting Iranian aggression in the region, especially its attempts at military entrenchment against us in Syria and to attack us from there. In this matter I hope to formulate an agreed policy.”

He’ll face three skeptical audiences. Merkel, Macron and May have all expressed strident opposition to the US leaving the 2015 nuclear accord, a move Netanyahu had lobbied for.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, greets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting on the sideline of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, eastern Switzerland, January 24, 2018. (Fabrice COFFRINI/AFP)

Israel has been a leading critic of the international nuclear deal with Iran, and more recently, has said it will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in Syria.

Netanyahu unsuccessfully tried to block the landmark nuclear deal, which gave Iran relief from crippling sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, when it was negotiated in 2015 under the leadership of US president Barack Obama. He has found a welcome ally in Trump, who last month announced the US was withdrawing from the deal and would apply heavy sanctions on Tehran.

Both the US and Israel hope that Trump’s withdrawal can lead all sides into addressing what they say are the deal’s shortcomings — including “sunset” provisions that eventually end restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities, such as enriching uranium, as well as permitting Iran to continue to develop long-range missiles. However, Merkel and Macron had both urged Trump to remain in the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

In addition to the US, the nuclear deal was negotiated by Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China, which have said they remain committed to the deal. Iran for now also is honoring the agreement, though some of its top officials have suggested it could resume its enrichment activities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) poses with British Prime Minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing street in London on November 2, 2017. (AFP Photo/Daniel Leal-Olivas)

Israel also fears that as the Syrian civil war winds down, Iran, whose forces and Shiite proxies have backed President Bashar Assad, will turn its focus to Israel.

The Israeli air force is believed to have carried out a number of airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria. Last month, the bitter enemies openly clashed when Iran fired dozens of rockets at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, and Israel responded by striking several Iranian targets in Syria.

Last week an Arabic-language daily reported Israel and Russia reached a deal to remove Iranian forces from southern Syria, while also giving Israel a green light to strike Iranian targets in Syria.

The reported agreement would see Iranian forces leave southwestern Syria, while allowing Israel to strike Iranian assets deep in the country. Israel agreed not to attack Syrian regime targets, the Asharq Al-Awsat report said.

During Netanyahu’s visit to France, an event, attended by Macron, will be held to mark 70 years of Israel’s independence and ties with France.

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