Swayed by Israel, Lithuanian minister urges EU rethink on Iran deal
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Interview'So far we’re just making statements, and that doesn't help'

Swayed by Israel, Lithuanian minister urges EU rethink on Iran deal

Foreign minister, visiting Jerusalem, says meetings with officials opened his eyes about 'holes' in the 2015 nuclear agreement

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius in Jerusalem, September 4, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius in Jerusalem, September 4, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Lithuania’s foreign minister on Monday called for stronger cooperation between Jerusalem and the European Union regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, saying his visit to Israel this week has opened his eyes about problematic aspects of the nuclear agreement the international community reached with Tehran in 2015.

“I told [my Israeli interlocutors] that many think the Iranian deal is a way to mitigate the problem [of Iran’s nuclear ambitions] through engagement, but here I heard a lot of criticism of the Iranian deal. We need to put all the arguments on the table and to look at them very carefully. Otherwise it would be very difficult to find a common approach,” Linas Linkevičius told The Times of Israel.

“For me it was a bit new to hear about holes in the agreement, doubts about the implementation, doubts about [Iran] continuing the nuclear program regardless of what was agreed.”

The nuclear deal, which rolled back punishing sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on enrichment of nuclear material, was heavily criticized by Israel for failing to effectively prevent Iran’s nuclear ambitions and ignoring its conventional aggression in the region. US President Donald Trump has also threatened to cancel the deal, but the EU, three of whose members are party to the agreement, has continued to champion the pact as the best way to keep Tehran from building a nuclear weapon.

Linkevičius, who has been Lithuania’s foreign minister since 2012, said he heard about Israeli concerns when he week met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also spoke to President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and other senior officials and security analysts.

“I heard about [Iran] from the prime minister and analysts, from many sources, and I believe it should be addressed,” he said, citing “discrepancies in the approach” between Jerusalem and Brussels.

“This is something that should be addressed by us if we can have a decent dialogue. But dialogue does not exist so far. So far there’s nothing between Israel and the European Union, and that’s not good… We can disagree, we can agree but we have to talk. So far we’re just making statements, and that doesn’t help.”

Formally, the EU was not a party to the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was reached between Iran and six world powers, including France, Britain and Germany. But the union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has played a leading role in promoting the deal and defending it in the face of critics from Israel, the United States and elsewhere.

Nuclear watchdogs and the EU assert that Iran is adhering to the terms of the agreement, but Trump has recently suggested otherwise.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini hold a joint press conference during the E3/EU+3 and Iran talks at the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna on January 16, 2016. (AFP/Joe Klamar)

Last year, Linkevičius traveled to Tehran and met with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, to “lay the foundation for fostering more systematic cooperation,” according to Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry.

At the time, Linkevičius spoke of opening “a new page in political relations between Lithuania and Iran,” adding that Vilnius and Tehran “always maintained friendly relations without any ‘dark spots’ in the fabric of their bilateral ties.”

Linkevičius said that Lithuania, which joined the EU in 2004, was interested in improving ties with Tehran, as other states did after the sanctions on the regime were lifted.

“We have contacts. We have no negative pages in our history. We do not have much in common, but we try to get in touch to see if we could get more tangible relations. But that’s it,” he said.

During the interview Monday, he denounced Iran’s calls for Israel’s destruction, saying he could “share the position” of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who maintains that full relations with the regime could only be established after it recognized Israel’s right to exist in security.

This is not the first visit to Israel for Linkevičius, 56. During his first visit in the mid-1990s as defense minister, he met then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius at Yad Vashem, May 19, 2013. (Isaac Harari/Flash)

Linkevičius expressed support for a two-state solution and the resumption of Israeli-Palestinians peace talks while condemning settlement building.

“Settlements are really not very helpful, to put it mildly,” he said.

However, Vilnius has voted with Israel at the UN, and is considered one of Israel’s better friends in the European bloc.

On May 2, Lithuania was one of 10 countries that voted against a resolution at the UN Educational Scientific, Cultural Organization that denied Israeli claims to Jerusalem; 22 countries had voted in favor and 23 abstained.

The status of Jerusalem is so delicate and therefore should not be further complicated with such resolutions, Linkevičius said. “These decision wouldn’t help a rapprochement.”

Lithuania’s pro-Israel positions have raised the ire of some in the Arab world, the foreign minister said. “There were some calls from time to time. We still did it, so what we did was the right thing to do. What will be in the future we will see,” he said, indicating Lithuania will base any vote on its wording.

“We’re always quite careful. It should be balanced, not one-sided. If you do that at the expense of others, it’s really not helpful,” he said. “If we feel it’s not balanced, we’re not supporting, regardless of what the majority does.”

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