Iran – not President Bashar Assad – rules Syria, declared Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as he warned the US against easing economic sanctions on Iran before it completely dismantled its nuclear weapons program.
“I don’t think Assad is in power. I think Iran is in power. Because basically, Syria has become an Iranian protectorate. Iran’s henchmen, Hezbollah, are doing the fighting for Assad, for his army. To the extent he has an army, it’s the Hezbollah Army,” Netanyahu told NBC reporter David Gregory during an interview on Meet the Press that aired Sunday.
He spoke just after US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, on the same show, twice underscored the point that it was premature to talk of financially rewarding Iran.
The US must see that Iran has removed its capacity to develop nuclear weapons before it could consider providing it with economic relief, Lew said.
“We need to see real, tangible evidence of it, and we will not make moves on the sanctions until we see those kinds of moves,” Lew said.
“I think the sanctions were working and that’s why the discussions have started. But we need to see what they’re going to actually do. We need to see [them] rolling back their nuclear program. And I can tell you that when the time comes, when those movements come, any changes will have to be proportionate. But it’s premature to talk about any changes right now,” Lew explained.
“The sanctions were put in place to change the way the government of Iran thought about its choices to have the economic pressure bring them to the table to change their nuclear program,” he added.
But Israel has insisted and continues to insist that the Iranian nuclear program must be completely dismantled and that its enriched uranium must be removed from the country before any sanction relief is offered. Netanyahu underscored this point when he spoke on NBC on Sunday and at his weekly cabinet meeting.
He will also deliver this message to US Secretary of State John Kerry when he meets with him in Rome on Wednesday. Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz will hammer home this point as well when he holds a strategic dialogue with US officials in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday, including with the American team that participated in the six-party talks with Iran in Geneva last week.
Netanyahu told NBC that if the US eased sanctions in return for a deal from Iran, other countries would immediately follow suit and Tehran would maintain its nuclear weapons capacity.
“There are a lot of countries that are waiting for a signal, just waiting for a signal, to get rid of their sanctions regime,” Netanyahu said.
He underscored a point that he first publicly articulated only last month at the United Nations General Assembly – namely, that Iran has a right to pursue a nuclear energy program, but that it does not need enriched uranium for such a program.
There are 17 nuclear energy programs in the world, including Canada and Mexico, which do not have centrifuges or heavy water plutonium reactors, Netanyahu said.
“Here comes Iran and says, ‘I want civilian nuclear energy.’ I don’t know why, because they have energy with gas and oil coming out of their ears for generations. But suppose you believe them. Then you ask, ‘Why do you insist on mainlining a plutonium heavy water reactor and on maintaining centrifuges that can only be used for nuclear weapons?’ And the answer is because they want to have residual capability to make nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said.
In Jerusalem on Sunday morning, Netanyahu explained to his cabinet during its weekly meeting that Iran’s nuclear capacity has increased more than onehundred fold in the last seven years, from 167 centrifuges in 2006 to 18,000 today.
This growth occurred in spite of continued dialogue with the West and UN Security Council decisions that bar Iran from enriching uranium and from producing centrifuges used for that process, according to the Israeli prime minister.
“We must not forget that the Iranian regime has systematically misled the international community,” he said.
“There is a danger of granting international legitimacy to a recalcitrant regime that is now participating in the mass slaughter of civilians – men, women and children – in Syria and has done so over the past two years,” Netanyahu said.
The Iranian regime has supported terrorism on five continents and has ignored and violated UN Security Council decisions on its nuclear program, he said.
“I think that the correct approach toward such a regime is to be wary and increase the pressure,” Netanyahu said.
The six parties – the US, Russia, China, France, Germany and Great Britain – are set to meet with Iran again in Geneva on November 7 and 8 to continue to seek a diplomatic solution to Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.
The full details of last week’s meeting have not been made public. Iran has said that it is willing to curb some of its actions but insisted that it maintains the right to enrich uranium.
Michael Wilner contributed to this report.