Netanyahu on possibility of Trump-Rouhani talks: ‘I don’t tell him who to meet’

If such a summit takes place, prime minister says he thinks the US president will maintain a ‘tough and sober’ approach

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on September 5, 2019 after a meeting with Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on September 5, 2019 after a meeting with Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday acknowledged that a meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, which he has vehemently opposed, could nonetheless take place in the near future.

“The possibility of a meeting between Trump and Rouhani exists,” he told reporters after meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London. “I don’t tell the president who to meet.”

Still, if such a meeting were to take place, Netanyahu said, he was “certain the president will bring a tougher and more sober approach [to such an interaction] than what we have previously seen.”

On Wednesday, Trump told reporters he did not rule out meeting with Rouhani in the near future. Asked at the White House whether he might meet with the Iranian leader at the United Nations, Trump responded: “Sure, anything is possible.”

In recent weeks France has made significant efforts to bring the American and Iranian leaders together to try to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear impasse. During recent G7 talks in Biarritz, French President Emmanuel Macron unexpectedly invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to fly in for talks. Zarif and Trump did not meet, but Trump stated he would “certainly agree” to meet Rouhani soon under the “correct circumstances,” and that there was a “really good chance” this would happen.

Israel has been reported to be deeply worried by Trump’s declared readiness to meet Rouhani, fearing the US president will open a dialogue with Iran similar to the ongoing one he has with North Korea, taking pressure off Tehran.

On Thursday morning, as he left for London, Netanyahu called to increase pressure on Tehran rather than relieve it.

“This is not the time to conduct talks with Iran,” he said.

Zarif’s visit to the G7 on August 25 came on the same day that Israel struck in Syria, saying it had acted preemptively to thwart a planned attack on Israel by Iran-backed fighters using armed drones.

Netanyahu said Thursday that “Macron’s invite to Zarif on the same day Iran committed an aggression was exceedingly inappropriate. I said this to Macron.”

Netanyahu added that any international negotiations with Iran must be “broad negotiations: on nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and conditioning any agreement on an end to [Iran’s] aggression around the world.”

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani speaks at parliament in the capital Tehran on September 3, 2019. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

On Wednesday, Rouhani announced additional steps away from the 2015 nuclear agreement, vowing to accelerate nuclear activities if Europe fails to satisfy Tehran’s demands.

“From Friday, we will witness research and development on different kinds of centrifuges and new centrifuges and also whatever is needed for enriching uranium in an accelerated way,” the Iranian president said in an address broadcast on state TV. “All limitations on our Research and Development will be lifted on Friday.”

Netanyahu highlighted that threat on Thursday morning: “This morning we were informed of another violation, more defiance, by Iran, this time in its striving to attain nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu said Rouhani’s announcement showed Iran continued to work to acquire nuclear weapons, while also carrying out “aggressive acts against international shipping and against countries in the region” and continuing in its “efforts to carry out murderous attacks against the State of Israel.”

US President Donald Trump (L) and French President Emmanuel Macron talk before a family picture with G7 leaders and guests at the G7 summit in Biarritz, southwest France, on August 25, 2019. (Ludovic Marin/AFP)

At his meeting with the UK’s Johnson, Netanyahu said “We have the challenge of Iran’s aggression and terrorism, and I’d like to talk to you about how we can work together to counter these things for the benefit of peace.”

Later on Thursday, Netanyahu met with UK Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who is also in London.

Esper wrote on Twitter that he discussed with Netanyahu “our shared security challenges.”

“I appreciate him taking the time on his trip to London to meet on these important issues,” Esper wrote.

The UK is one of the signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and continues to firmly back the agreement, but has recently clashed with the Islamic Republic after it detained a UK-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. British authorities had previously seized a tanker carrying Iranian oil off the coast of Gibraltar.

Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.

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