Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir each highlighted Iran as the main threat to regional stability on Sunday at the Munich Security Conference but fell short of saying they would cooperate to thwart Tehran.
Highlighting the extent to which the two countries’ views of Iran concur, each speaker cast Iran as a threat to the existence of his country; said the 2015 nuclear agreement had not moderated its behavior; and called for a tough international role – including economic pressure – to confront the Islamic Republic’s ambitions.
But Saudi Arabia retained its caution about being identified with Israel. While Liberman called for an alliance with Sunni states, Jubeir did not directly respond when asked if he envisions a coalition with Israel against Tehran.
Jubeir, who spoke after Liberman and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlet Cavusoglu, pointedly rejected a new Iranian call for a dialogue with Sunni Arab Gulf states, telling the conference that the Islamic Republic is trying to “upend the order” in the Middle East and seeks the destruction of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi accuses Iran of undermining regional security
“The Iranians speak of wanting to turn a new page, wanting to look forward, not backward. This is great, but what about the present?” he asked. “We can’t ignore what they are doing in the region.
We can’t ignore their constitution which calls for the export of the revolution. How can one deal with a nation whose intent is to destroy us?” Liberman, meanwhile, accused Iran of trying to undermine Saudi Arabia and termed Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, “the No.
1 terrorist in the world.”
“If you ask me, ‘What is the biggest news in the Middle East?’ I think that [for] the first time since 1948 the moderate Arab world, Sunni world, understands that the biggest threat for them is not Israel, not Jews and not Zionism, but Iran and Iranian proxies,” Liberman said, pointing to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the Houthi militia in Yemen.
Israel has not seen more moderate behavior from Iran since it signed the nuclear deal with world powers, the defense minister said. To the contrary, he stated, Israel has seen a competition organized in Tehran for the best Holocaust denial cartoon, with a prize of $50,000; parades in Tehran featuring ballistic missiles with Hebrew inscriptions reading “Israel must be wiped out;” a State Department report finding that Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world; Iranian development of ballistic missiles in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231; the persecution of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities; and 600 executions in 2016, often with little or no due process.
The defense minister said the Iran nuclear deal was “an attempt to avoid reality” and a “copy paste” of the nuclear agreements with North Korea that have yielded similar results.
He called for world powers to enforce a tough policy of economic pressure and follow through on UN resolutions, such as in the case of Iran carrying out ballistic-missile tests.
The Iranians aim to “undermine stability in every country in the Middle East... their main destination at the end of the day is Saudi Arabia,” Liberman said, adding that Bahrain was also in Tehran’s crosshairs.
Jubeir termed Tehran “rampant in its support of terrorism and interference in the affairs of other countries.’’ “When we look at the region, we see the challenge emanating from Iran, which remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world,” he said. Iran does not believe in the principles of good neighborliness or noninterference in the affairs of others, he continued. “We see a state sponsor of terrorism determined to upend the order of the Middle East.”
Jubeir’s comments came after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, addressing the conference earlier, struck a conciliatory tone toward Gulf states, saying: “We have to address common problems and perceptions that have given rise to anxieties and the level of violence in the region.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traveled last week to Oman and Kuwait to try to improve relations.
But Jubeir was skeptical of this. “We’re looking for actions, not words. Saying things is one thing and doing something else is another. Sending ballistic missiles to the Houthis [in Yemen] are actions, sending weapons in violation of Security Council resolutions to the Houthis is an action, sending Shi’a militias to fight in support of [President Bashar] Assad in action. When you plant terror cells in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and other places, that’s action. And action is more important than words.”
Jubeir said there needs to be a change in the nature of the Iranian state. “Until and unless Iran changes its behavior its outlook and the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with not just for Saudi Arabia but for other countries. We’re hopeful Iran will change. We respect Iran’s culture and the Iranian people, it’s a great civilization and it is our neighbor, but it takes two to have a good relationship.
“For 35 years, we’ve extended our arm in friendship to the Iranians, and for 35 years we’ve gotten death and destruction in return.
This cannot continue,” the Saudi foreign minister said.
“With the world increasingly realizing the nature of the Iranian regime, we hope enough pressure can be brought to bear to bring an end to Iran’s behavior,” he said.
Jubeir said an assertive American role is vital to confronting the Islamic Republic’s ambitions. “The Iranians must understand that acting the way they have for the past 35 years is not acceptable and that the world will not let them get away with what is literally murder. When they do understand this, their behavior will change.”
He stressed, though, that “so far, we haven’t seen a change. The Iranians have violated the ballistic missile accords, the Iranians have stepped up the tempo of their mischief during the negotiations [for the nuclear accord] and continue to step it up after the agreement was signed. This notion that an agreement will cause Iran to change its behavior is something we don’t see reflected in the facts.
“I think they’re very rational and know where the redlines are if they’re drawn clearly,” Jubeir said. “The world must make clear certain behavior won’t be tolerated and that there will be consequences in tune with what the violations are.”
Asked how Iran’s aggression can be blocked, Jubeir responded: “There could be virtual containment denying access to the banking system and trade, travel, [and there could be] other ways of imposing sanctions, not necessarily building a wall or having troops around it.”
Jubeir said Saudi Arabia is willing to help achieve a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“We know what a settlement will look like, you just need political will for it. My country stands ready together with other Arab countries to see how we can promote that.”
Liberman said that two states with population exchanges is the only solution to the conflict.
“My vision and goal is, without a doubt, the twostate solution,” he said. “I believe that we must ensure Israel remains a Jewish state.
The basic solution must include a land swap and a population swap. There are a lot of misunderstandings.”
The defense minister said “it made no sense” to have a homogeneous Palestinian state and a binational State of Israel.
“The biggest problem is that we are willing for them to have a Palestinian state without a single Jew in it, but in Israel, 20% of our population will be Arabs. We cannot create two states this way,” he said.
MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) criticized Liberman’s statement, saying Arab towns of Israel are populated by natives of the land and cannot be compared to the “illegal and immoral settlements in the occupied territories.
“Liberman is continuing his delegitimization campaign against the Arab minority, treating us like merchandise,” Jabareen said.Reuters contributed to this report.