October 10, 2013 2:27 pm

Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu warns UK on relations with Iran

Photo: Amos Ben Gershom GPO

Benjamin Netanyahu urged Britain to insist that Iran recognise Israel and “stop calling for its annihilation” before London moves to restore full diplomatic ties with Tehran.

The Iranian regime had a “mad ideology that is sugarcoated with soft words”, the Israeli prime minister said during an interview in which he urged the west, and Europe in particular, to take an unsparing line on stopping its nuclear programme at talks in Geneva next week.

“Iran is calling for the annihilation of the Jewish state and of a member state of the UN,” Mr Netanyahu told the Financial Times. “It seems sensible that Britain would say, ‘before we re-establish diplomatic relations, abandon this’.”

When asked whether Israel had raised this formally with the UK, Mr Netanyahu replied: “I am telling this to Britain now.”

The UK and Iran this week announced that they are taking initial steps toward reopening embassies closed since 2011, when the UK mission in Tehran was mobbed by protesters. The impending diplomatic upgrade is just one part of a broader thaw in relations with the west since Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said he was committed to engaging in talks on Iran’s nuclear programme in hopes of easing the sanctions burdening his country’s economy.

Israel’s leader is normally sparing with media interviews, but on Thursday met with European journalists, who were escorted through the “aquarium” – the nickname for the inner suite where his Jerusalem office sits – for individual talks focused on a single topic: Iran. Mr Netanyahu sees Tehran’s nuclear programme as an existential threat for Israel and has described it as the defining issue of his prime ministership.

“I think we are before a fateful decision that Europe has to make and the United States has to make,” he said, sitting behind his desk alongside an Israeli flag and a relief map of his country.

“No deal is better than a bad deal, and a bad deal would be a partial agreement which lifts sanctions off Iran and leaves them with the ability to enrich uranium or to continue work on their heavy water plutonium, which is what is needed to produce nuclear weapons,” he said.

Repeating a threat of military action against Iran that he made in a speech to the UN earlier this month, he said: “Israel will not enable Iran to have nuclear weapons capability.” When pressed on what might trigger Israeli action or what form it might take, he said: “Our policy is never to speak about our military option”.

Mr Netanyahu’s cynicism about Mr Rouhani’s diplomatic overtures to the west and his promise to “stand alone” against Iran have played well among most Israelis, one poll published last week showed.

Overseas, however, his tough line on maintaining sanctions until Iran dismantles all elements of its nuclear programme have cast the third-term Israeli prime minister as a naysayer increasingly isolated from even his closest ally, the US, and unwilling to give diplomacy a chance.

When asked about this, Mr Netanyahu replied: “Isolated from whom?” Raising his voice for emphasis he said: “Every Arab country shares my exact position, except for one: Syria.”

He said that after his General Assembly speech, dozens of ambassadors approached him and told him he had done the right thing.

“Isolated from what?” he continued. “That we are saying Iran should not develop nuclear weapons? That the west should not be duped?”

Mr Netanyahu also dismissed criticism that his UN speech allowed too little room for diplomacy, or that confrontation with Tehran could leave Israel vulnerable to retaliation from Iran or its Hizbollah proxy, saying this was “mushy stuff”.

Pounding his fist on his desk, he outlined Israel’s demands. “At this juncture, we have to say things clearly, and the clear thing is this: Iran should not have centrifuges; it should not have plutonium plants. These things should be completely dismantled, as was stipulated by the Security Council resolutions, as was demanded by the P5 plus 1 [the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China].”

Since Mr Netanyahu’s speech to the UN, Israeli officials have driven home their message on Iran to journalists in the US. Mr Netanyahu now has a tailored message for Europe: while the US may be Iran’s Great Satan, he warned, “there is also a middle-sized Satan, which is Europe and Britain”. He raised the spectre of Iranian missiles with nuclear payloads that could soon reach European cities such as London.

Since Mr Rouhani took power, Mr Netanyahu said, Iran had, if anything, “moved farther down the track carrying it closer to nuclear weapons”. Israel’s biggest worry, he added, is that Iran could make “cosmetic concessions” that it could reverse within weeks in exchange for lifting of sanctions that took the international community years to put in place.

“Don’t give up now, finish the job, let it take effect,” Mr Netanyahu said. “Don’t give up now, and don’t say later that I didn’t warn you.”

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