Netanyahu and Zarif’s War Of Words at Munich Security Conference

More than 450 world leaders and diplomats attended the 54th Munich Security Conference in mid-February. The conference heard 10 keynote speeches including by British Prime Minister Theresa May, President of the European Commission Jean Claude Junker, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the U.S. National Security Adviser General H.R/ McMaster, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Mr. Netanyahu began his address by praising Munich for its stunning architecture and rich museums, but reminded everyone of the tragic events of the 1972 Munich Olympics, when 11 Israeli athletes were brutally massacred. He also spoke about the killing of six million Jews in the Holocaust by the Nazis.

He criticized the European countries for signing the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal with “a regime that brutalizes its own people.” Netanyahu said: “Iran is not Nazi Germany. But it openly declares its intention to annihilate Israel with its six million Jews. It makes absolutely no bones about it. ” He added: “Iran seeks to dominate our region, the Middle East, and seeks to dominate the world through aggression and terror.”

At another point in his address, Netanyahu highlighted Iran’s global ambition and said: “The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said ‘We’re on the path to the rule of Islam worldwide.’”

He added: “Nowhere are Iran’s belligerent ambitions clearer than in Syria. There, Iran hopes to complete a contiguous empire, linking Tehran to Tartus, the Caspian to the Mediterranean. Israel will continue to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria. Israel will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck.”

Towards the end of his address, Netanyahu held up what he said was a piece of an Iranian drone shot down in Israeli airspace. He said: “Well, here’s a piece of that Iranian drone, or what’s left of it after we shot it down. I’ve brought it here so you can see for yourself. Mr. Zarif, do you recognize this? You should. It’s yours. You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran: Do not test Israel’s resolve.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wasted no time in hitting back at Netanyahu, describing his comments on Iran as “a cartoonish circus which does not even deserve the dignity of a response.”

He reiterated his proposal for “a security arrangement in the Persian Gulf, founded on dialogue, common principles, and confidence-building measures.”

However, he warned: “Unless there is a collective effort to bring comprehensive peace and security to the Persian Gulf region, we will be engulfed in turmoil and potentially far worse for generations to come. And our turmoil, in this interconnected world, is everyone’s turmoil, as evidenced by events in both our region and in the West since the turn of this century.”

Zarif took a softer and more conciliatory tone towards the end of his speech, admitting that more work needed to be done to build trust between Iran and its neighbors. He said: “We also recognize that we need confidence-building measures in the Persian Gulf: from joint military visits to pre-notification of military exercises; and from transparency measures in armament procurement to reducing military expenditures; all of which could eventually lead to a regional non-aggression pact.”

“We can begin with easier-to-implement issues such as the promotion of tourism, joint investments, or even joint task forces on issues ranging from nuclear safety to pollution to disaster management.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly remained in the conference hall during Zarif’s address.

Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, also attacked the Islamic Republic during his address at the Munich Conference, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab Arabiya TV reported. His comments on Iran echoed those of Netanyahu.

Mr. al-Jubeir said: “The problems in the region started with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution.” He added: “We’ll keep the pressure on Iran until it changes its behavior.”

According to Foreign Minister al-Jubeir, Iran supplies 90 percent of explosives to terrorist groups. “The Iranian authorities have provided sanctuaries to the leaders of the Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s family members,” al-Jubeir noted, adding that Iran was trying to destabilize Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

In an interview with the U.S. television network CNBC on February 19, al-Jubeir explained: “Iran planted Hezbollah in Lebanon over 30 years ago. Hezbollah has become the foremost terrorist organization in the world. The Iranians have planted the Houthis in Yemen, and they are growing and seeking to take over a strategically important country. They are trying to establish Hezbollah-like organizations in the region.”

He added: “We believe that a large percentage of the Iranian economy is controlled by the IRGC and companies associated with the guards. And we believe that any dealings with those companies only serve to enrich the IRGC.”

Iran enjoyed a degree of acceptance within the international community during the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 nuclear negotiations with the European countries. However, the political climate has drastically changed in the past year. Saudi Arabia and Israel have reportedly been lobbying against Iran in Europe. It is conceivable that the Europeans will take a tougher stance against Tehran in the coming months. The issue will no doubt be discussed by Mr. Zarif with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, during his upcoming visit to Moscow.