Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday took credit for stopping a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.
As he touched down in Lisbon for a two-day trip that is set to include meetings with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior Portuguese officials, Netanyahu also praised the tough US sanctions on Iran, saying the financial pressure has sparked protests against the Iranian regime across the region, while urging even stronger action against Tehran.
Netanyahu last year welcomed the US withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Iran along with subsequent American sanctions. The sanctions, targeting Iran’s vital oil sector, have hit the Iranian economy hard.
In recent weeks, Iranian forces have reportedly killed over 200 people in demonstrations against rising fuel prices.
The prime minister said the US sanctions were “creating economic problems, creating political problems.” While saying that he has given up hope of European countries joining the sanctions, he said there is still a “wide spectrum” of options for ratcheting up the pressure.
The prime minister also credited his efforts with thwarting a meeting between the US and Iranian leaders.
Netanyahu said a September meeting between Trump and Rouhani would have strengthened the position of the Iranian government, and said that weakening the Islamic Republic was one of Israel’s “key goals.”
He told reporters that he was the one who suggested ramping up pressure on Iran to Trump, and that the US president “decided to implement this along with strengthened operational and intelligence cooperation.”
Ahead of the UN General Assembly in September, Trump floated the idea of sitting down with his Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of the annual summit, at a time when tensions between the two countries were soaring, but the meeting never took place.
Reports at the time said the face-to-face meeting was taken off the table after Rouhani demanded Washington lift the crippling sanctions it imposed since withdrawing from the nuclear deal.
Netanyahu, Pompeo set to meet
At the center of Netanyahu’s two-day trip to Lisbon is a planned working dinner with Pompeo, a pro-Israel stalwart and key architect of Washington’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran, which includes tough economic sanctions.
The prime minister is also slated to meet with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa and Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva.
Before he left Israel, Netanyahu praised the US administration for putting “tremendous pressures and sanctions on Iran,” which he said was leading to instability that could cripple the ayatollah regime.
“We’re seeing the Iranian empire totter,” he said, citing protests in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, in which some demonstrators have expressed anger at Iran’s influence. “I think that it’s important to increase this pressure against Iranian aggression.”
Speaking on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport, Netanyahu said his conversation with Pompeo would “focus first of all on Iran, and two additional matters: the defense pact with the US that I seek to advance, and also a future American recognition of Israel applying sovereignty over the Jordan Valley. These are very important issues, we are dealing with them all the time. And there are also other issues, that I will not detail now.”
Talks are expected to revolve around the Iranian regime’s efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as well as its increasing violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, including its recent decision to resume enrichment of uranium at the Fordo nuclear facility.
The prime minister also repeated his harsh criticism of European countries who recently joined the INSTEX financial mechanism, which is meant to allow Iran to continue to sell its oil despite the punishing US sanctions.
“They should be ashamed of themselves,” Netanyahu said angrily. “While people are risking their lives and dying on the streets of Tehran, they’re giving sustenance and support to this tyrannical regime. The tyrants of Tehran should not be supported now; they should be pressured.”
Pompeo and Netanyahu last met in October in Jerusalem. According to reports, Netanyahu had originally planned to meet Pompeo in London, where world leaders, including Trump, are gathering for a NATO summit this week.
Netanyahu spoke with Trump over the phone on Sunday. According to the White House, the two discussed Iran and other unspecified bilateral issues.
Netanyahu later said that the proposed defense alliance and annexation of the Jordan Valley were discussed as well in the call, which he termed “a very important conversation for the security of Israel.”
“These are things that we could only dream about, but we have the possibility of implementing them,” he said.
Last month, Pompeo appeared to pave the way for an Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, and possibly other parts of the West Bank, when he declared that the administration would no longer consider Israeli settlements as necessarily illegal under international law.
AP contributed to this report.