MUNICH — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dramatic speech Sunday about Iranian aggression in the Middle East seemed intended, above all, for the ears of US President Donald Trump, who in approximately two months will decide whether to renew sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
“[The speech] was meant to address the current aggressiveness of Iran on the ground and to influence what will happen in Washington in a few months,” he told reporters after the address at the Munich Security Conference, in which he displayed the wing flap of an Iranian drone that was recently shot down in Israeli airspace.
Netanyahu added that he will speak with Trump about the issue at the beginning of next month, when he will be in Washington as part of the annual AIPAC Policy Conference.
His central argument is that if the US were to restore some sanctions against Iran, countries throughout the world would be forced to choose between access to the Iranian economy, with its GDP of approximately $500 billion, and the American economy — with its GDP of nearly $20 trillion.
The prime minister has been a constant critic of the 2015 Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in part over its “sunset clause,” which eventually removes restrictions against nuclear development, as well as over the limitations it places on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to inspect Iranian military sites.
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have maintained that these issues are serious flaws in the agreement. They also protest the fact that Iran has been able to develop ballistic missiles, with which it could launch a future nuclear weapon, despite a UN resolution calling for it to stop.
The prime minister said those problems need to be addressed, though he stressed that this “did not necessarily mean altering the JCPOA, but changing the situation,” a reference to his call on world powers to contain Iranian aggression beyond the confines of the deal.
A senior diplomatic official acknowledged that not everyone in attendance at the conference — notably including two of its main architects, former US secretary of state John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — was likely to appreciate his harsh words.
Kerry, for his part, later called Netanyahu’s comments on the Iran deal “fundamentally false.”
Netanyahu said the rest of the world should consider how Iran will act if it acquires an atomic arsenal, in light of its current destabilizing actions in the region.
“This is what they do today, when they don’t have nuclear weapons,” he said, referring to Tehran’s involvement in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
The decision to bring a piece of the Iranian drone as tangible “proof” of Iranian aggression came from the prime minister’s communications adviser David Keyes, who stashed the drone piece under the podium before the speech.
Zarif responded to Netanyahu’s prop by calling it a “cartoonish circus” that did “not warrant a response.”
Netanyahu, for his part, called Zarif’s dismissal a public relations win. “The fact that [Zarif] had to respond to it was the whole point,” he told reporters.
Netanyahu kept his focus on the Iranians at the conference, and away from the burgeoning corruption investigations surrounding his affairs back in Israel. He refused to answer journalists’ repeated questions over news of the arrest of former senior officials from his office and from the Bezeq communications company in the context of one investigation.
In his speech, Netanyahu issued a dramatic, explicit threat to act against Iran itself, and not limit Israeli responses to Tehran’s proxies in Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and Yemen.
The prime minister told the conference that Israel “will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck. We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves. And we will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.”
Speaking to reporters after the speech, a senior diplomatic official would not comment on whether that meant targeting sites inside Iran or — as happened last week following the Iranian drone’s incursion into Israeli airspace — striking Iranian targets inside Syria.
The Iranian drone, which entered northern Israel from Syria near the Jordan border last Saturday, was shot down by an Israeli attack helicopter. In response to the drone incursion, Israeli jets attacked the mobile command center from which it was operated, the army said at the time.
During the reprisal raid, one of the eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets that took part in the operation was apparently hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed. The Israeli Air Force then conducted a second round of airstrikes, destroying between a third and half of Syria’s air defenses, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.
A senior diplomatic official said Sunday that Israel would have no problem justifying an attack against Iranian targets if it decided to do so.
“Iran attacks Israel. That’s clear. From Lebanon, from Gaza, from Syria. This is coming from Iran. Period,” the official told reporters after the speech, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Iran has no immunity.”