Netanyahu tells Macron ‘now is precisely not the time to talk to Iran’

Netanyahu tells Macron ‘now is precisely not the time to talk to Iran’

PM cites Tehran’s rising regional aggression in call with French leader; NY Times report says officials in Islamic Republic believe talks with Trump inevitable

French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 5, 2018. (AFP/Ludovic Marin)
French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 5, 2018. (AFP/Ludovic Marin)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Friday with French President Emmanuel Macron, urging him not to negotiate with Iran at the present time.

According to a readout from his office, the Israeli premier said that, with Tehran increasing its regional aggression and threatening Israel and others, “now is “precisely not the time” to hold conciliatory talks with the regime.

In the phone call, initiated by the French side, the two discussed recent regional tensions in Israel’s north as well as with the Gaza Strip. The Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu told Macron Israel would defend itself from attacks by enemies who desire its destruction.

He added that whoever gives cover to aggression against Israel will not be safe from attack, in apparent reference to Israeli strikes in Syria and Lebanon. Israel has also been blamed for a series of recent strikes against pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.

Macron has been one of the leading voices in the European Union for dialogue with the Islamic Republic. This week he arranged the surprise arrival of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, and proposed a summit between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Trump showed openness to the notion, a fact that has reportedly caused intense concern in Jerusalem.

According to a New York Times report Thursday, Iranian officials increasingly believe their nation will eventually have no choice but to negotiate with Trump, and even view talks a inevitable.

Citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the matter, the paper said Iran may even consider Trump’s demand to discuss its ballistic missile program and role in the region, but would also require Washington to guarantee long-lasting economic relief.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini gave a cautious welcome to the idea of negotiations Friday, saying “We are always in favor of talks, the more people talk, the more people understand each other better, on the basis of clarity and on the basis of respect.” But she added that “first and foremost what is existing needs to be preserved” — referring to UN Security Council resolutions and specifically the 2015 deal.

According to a Thursday report by Channel 13 news, Netanyahu urgently tried to dissuade Trump from potentially meeting with Zarif at the G7, but was unable to reach him despite hours of “frantic” efforts. The report cited unnamed Israeli and American officials.

Thursday’s report, also carried by US news site Axios, said Netanyahu worried that Trump could meet with Zarif, and tried to get Trump on the phone to convince him not to sit down with the Iranian foreign minister, who had recently been sanctioned by Washington. Netanyahu’s staff also contacted members of the US administration to try to schedule a phone call. However, administration officials said Trump was too busy in meetings at the high-level summit to take the phone call.

US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands after their joint press conference at the G7 summit on August 26, 2019 in Biarritz, southwestern France. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Netanyahu instead spoke to Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom released statements backing Israel’s right to defend itself against Iran.

“The Israeli estimate is that the resumption of negotiations between the US and Iran is only a matter of time, and not a lot of time either,” the Channel 13 report said Thursday. Trump and Rouhani are just “bargaining over the terms” for that resumption, it added.

Netanyahu had been concerned that a meeting with Zarif could lead to a sit-down with Rouhani, according to the TV report. US administration officials also expressed misgivings about giving Zarif a PR coup.

Trump ultimately decided against meeting Zarif independent of Netanyahu’s efforts, according to the report, but told Macron that he would be open to meeting Zarif at a later time.

Speculation has swirled that Trump and Rouhani may meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next month.

Iran’s leadership has downplayed the chances for talks with the US without sanctions being eased first.

Netanyahu and Trump have been almost completely in lockstep regarding Iran, but the prospect of talks are seen as a catalyst that may set the sides on divergent paths.

The Israeli cabinet has had several discussions about the prospect of US-Iran negotiations, Channel 13 reported, with ministers immensely concerned that Trump may ease sanctions without any real breakthrough, a repeat of his diplomacy with North Korea.

Netanyahu had campaigned vociferously against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, fraying ties with former US president Barack Obama, but he found a champion in Trump, who pulled out of the accord last year.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif holds talks in Biarritz on August 25, 2019 with France’s President Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (Handout photo via AFP)

The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany — the three European parties to the deal — were to be joined by EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini for talks Friday on salvaging the deal, which curbed sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel has recently upped its rhetoric against Iran as tensions have soared, though some analysts have also linked the fiery words to a campaign to stymie US-Iran talks.

On Monday, Netanyahu fumed that “Iran is acting in a broad front to produce murderous terror attacks against Israel.”

On Thursday, he accused Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah of racing to build a missile-production program in Lebanon, vowing to destroy the ambitious project and issuing a stern warning to his enemies to “be careful.”

Last Saturday night the Israel Defense Forces carried out airstrikes on military targets in southern Syria, saying it thwarted a plan by Iran’s Quds Force and Shiite militias to send “kamikaze” attack drones into Israel armed with explosives.

Regional tensions shot up in recent days after Israel carried out airstrikes on Iranian and Iran-backed fighters in Syria to thwart what it said was a plot to fly explosives-laden drones into the country.

Jerusalem has also been blamed for an airstrike in Lebanon, prompting Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to give a fiery speech Sunday in which he vowed revenge. And in Iraq Israel has been blamed for a series of strikes on Iran-backed paramilitary forces.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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