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Israel, Iran Trade Barbs At Munich Security Conference


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up an object, which he claimed was a piece of an Iranian drone shot down in Israeli airspace, during his speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 18.

MUNICH, Germany -- Israel's prime minister and the Iranian foreign minister have traded sharp words at a high-profile security conference, with Benjamin Netanyahu likening Iran to Nazi Germany and Mohammad Javad Zarif calling the Israeli leader's speech a "cartoonish circus."

Speaking for the first time ever at the Munich Security Conference on February 18, Netanyahu said Iran represents the "greatest threat to our world."

He urged the international community to confront a "regime" in Tehran that "threatens peace," and at one point brandished what he said was a piece of an Iranian drone shot down by Israel over its territory earlier this month.

Addressing the conference in the southern German city -- an annual gathering of world leaders, senior officials, and policy experts -- Netanyahu also denounced as dangerous a landmark 2015 international deal to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief.

That deal between Iran and six world powers has not moderated Iran "internally or externally," Netanyahu said.

He also said there were "striking similarities" between today's Iran and Nazi Germany, saying that the Iranian leadership wants to destroy Israel.

Netanyahu sought to differentiate between Iran's citizens and "an Iranian regime that threatens peace," saying he has "no problem with the people of Iran."

'Very Dangerous Development'

Netanyahu also told the audience, which included U.S. and European diplomats, that Iran is expanding its influence in the Middle East as the extremist group Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS, lost most of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria.

"The unfortunate thing is that as ISIS compresses and Iran moves in, it is trying to establish this continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen but also trying to create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza," he said.

"This is a very dangerous development for our region," Netanyahu added.

Netanyahu warned that Iran should "not test Israel’s resolve."

"We will act if necessary not just against Iran's proxies but against Iran itself," he said.

After holding up what he said was part of a recovered Iranian drone, Netanyahu called Zarif out by name, saying: "Do you recognize this? You should. It’s yours."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gives his speech in Munich.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gives his speech in Munich.

Zarif took the stage just hours after Netanyahu’s speech. Not mentioning the Israeli leader by name, he told the audience that earlier in the morning they had witnessed a "cartoonish circus" that "does not even deserve the dignity of a response."

He proceeded to deliver a litany of grievances against the United States and Israel, including U.S. military involvement in the Middle East and what he called Israeli "aggression as a policy against its neighbors."

He accused Israel of "mass reprisals against its neighbors and daily incursions" into Syria and Lebanon."

"The entire speech was trying to evade the issue," Zarif said of Netanyahu’s address.

Tensions between Israel and Iran spiked on February 10 after an Israeli warplane was shot down as it returned from a bombing operation against what the military described as both Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria.

The Israeli strikes came after the military said it had intercepted an Iranian drone crossing the Syria-Israel border. Tehran rejected Israel's version of events as "ridiculous" and "lies," saying Syria had the right to defend itself in response to the strikes.

Referring to the downing of the Israeli jet on February 10, Zarif told the Munich conference, "What has happened in the past several days is the so-called invincibility [of Israel] has crumbled."

'Delusional Attempts'

Answering a question about the nuclear agreement following his speech, Zarif warned that Iran would respond "seriously" if its "interests are not secured."

He accused Netanyahu of trying to undermine the accord, saying that the world "will maintain that agreement in spite of his delusional attempts."

U.S. President Donald Trump has accused Iran of violating the "spirit" of the nuclear accord and has said he wants to work with European allies and Congress to fix what he called "disastrous flaws" in the agreement.

Trump warned that Washington would withdraw from the deal if terms were not strengthened by May.

Speaking during a panel discussion in Munich on February 18, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry -- one of the key players in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal -- expressed continued support for the agreement.

"I believe it is absolutely critical for Europe, for the world, to make sure we hold on to this agreement," Kerry said. "Because to go backward -- we know what the world looks like without the Iran nuclear agreement. It is not a better place."

Iranian President Hassan Rohani said last month that Trump and his administration had "failed to undermine" the nuclear accord, "despite his repeated efforts."

Rohani praised the nuclear deal as "a long-lasting victory for Iran."

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.