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story.lead_photo.caption Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds what he claimed was a piece of a downed Iranian drone Sunday and directly addresses Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, while speaking at the Munich Security Conference.

MUNICH -- The nuclear deal with Iran has emboldened that country to become increasingly aggressive in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, warning that Iran should "not test Israel's resolve" as he showed off what he said was part of a downed Iranian drone.

In reference to Iran, Netanyahu said that if the U.S. decides to scrap the 2015 nuclear deal, which he has long opposed, "I think they'll do nothing."

But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, appearing two hours later at the same Munich Security Conference, fired back that Netanyahu's comment was "delusional thinking."

"I can assure that if Iran's interests are not secured, Iran will respond, will respond seriously. And I believe it would be a response that means people would be sorry for taking the erroneous action they did," he said.

Netanyahu has long criticized the nuclear deal that was negotiated between Iran and the world's biggest powers under President Barack Obama and has found an ally in President Donald Trump.

Trump has expressed deep skepticism about the deal, which lifted sanctions against Iran. He extended sanctions waivers in January but said he would not do so again when they come up for renewal in May, unless his concerns are addressed.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, an architect of the nuclear deal, said it was "absolutely critical" to ensure it survives.

"We know what the world looks like without the Iran nuclear agreement," he said Sunday at the conference. "It's not a better place."

If the U.S. abandons the current nuclear deal, it's unlikely Iran would consider a new one, Kerry said.

"The problem is the waters have been muddied because of this credibility issue about America's willingness to live up to any deal," he said.

Kerry dismissed Netanyahu's contention that Iran would be on its way to having a nuclear arsenal in 10 years, saying "that's fundamentally not accurate."

"If your house is on fire, are you going to refuse to put it out because you're concerned that it might light on fire again in 15 years?" he asked, a reference to Netanyahu's claim that Iran would develop warheads over the coming decade or two. "Or are you going to put it out and use the intervening time to do the best you can to prevent it from ever catching fire again?"

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Making clear that nervousness about the future of the deal extends broadly across the nations that helped negotiate it, a senior Russian lawmaker said he agreed with Kerry, despite the many other issues that divide the Kremlin and the United States.

"The choice in Iran is between the agreement, the deal and a war," said Alexei Pushkov, a member of the upper house of Russia's parliament.

In an illustration of the growing unofficial alliance between Israel and Arab powers against Iran, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir weighed in, saying the nuclear deal "has flaws that need to be fixed." He said that, among other things, the inspection system needs to be more intrusive.

"The world has to extract a price from Iran for its aggressive behavior," he added.

Netanyahu told world leaders, diplomats and defense officials at the conference that the deal was similar to the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement that Western powers signed with Adolf Hitler in an attempt to stave off war in Europe, which became synonymous with appeasement.

"The concessions to Hitler only emboldened the Nazi regime," he said. "Rather than choosing a path that might have prevented war ... those well-intentioned leaders made a wider war inevitable and far more costly."

He also said the Iranian nuclear agreement has "unleashed a dangerous Iranian tiger in our region and beyond."

He stopped short of equating Iran with Nazi Germany but drew many comparisons. "Let me be clear, Iran is not Nazi Germany," he said. "There are many differences between the two," he said. But, he noted, "there are also some striking similarities."

DRONE DISPUTE

Declaring that Iran's "brazenness hit new highs," he held up a fragment of what he said was an Iranian drone shot down earlier this month in Israeli airspace. He then challenged Zarif.

"Mr. Zarif, do you recognize this? You should, it's yours," Netanyahu said. "You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran -- do not test Israel's resolve!"

Tehran has denied that the drone belonged to Iran. Zarif on Sunday dismissed Netanyahu's actions as "a cartoonish circus ... which does not even deserve the dignity of a response."

The remarks came just more than a week after the Israeli military engaged directly with Iranian forces in Syria, striking what Israel said were a number of Iranian targets after intercepting a drone that had penetrated its airspace, then losing an Israeli fighter jet under Syrian anti-aircraft fire.

It is believed to be the first Israeli plane lost under enemy fire in decades.

Iranian troops, along with the Hezbollah militant group and other Iranian-backed Shiite forces, have aided Syrian President Bashar Assad in his war against rebel groups. Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that he will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence in postwar Syria, fearing that Iran and its Shiite allies would turn their attention to Israel.

Israel has long warned about the risk of conflict as Iranian forces and their allies, including Lebanon-based Hezbollah, have dug in on Syrian territory and approached the boundary with the Israeli-held portion of the Golan Heights.

Israel has carried out scores of airstrikes in Syria in recent years, focusing largely on what it says are advanced weapons stores or convoys of weapons meant for Hezbollah, and it has also reportedly hit Syrian government facilities involved in weapons development and an Iranian base under construction in Syria.

"I've made clear in word and deed that Israel has red lines it will enforce," Netanyahu said Sunday. "Israel will continue to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria. Israel will continue to act to prevent Iran from establishing another terror base from which to threaten Israel."

CLAIMS OF HYPOCRISY

Netanyahu has been projecting a business-as-usual approach on his visit to Germany amid uproar at home after police on Tuesday said there was sufficient evidence to indict him on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases. The Israeli leader has angrily rejected the accusations and denounced what he describes as an overzealous police investigation. He has also dismissed the accusations as a witch hunt orchestrated by a hostile media.

Zarif suggested that Netanyahu might be escalating tensions with Iran to distract from his domestic problems.

Denouncing what he said were Israel's "almost daily illegal incursions into Syrian airspace," Zarif said Israel was trying "to create these cartoonish images to blame others for its own strategic blunders, or maybe to evade the domestic crisis they're facing."

The Iranian foreign minister also cited Israel's strikes against targets in Lebanon and its occupation of Palestinian lands.

"Israel uses aggression as a policy against its neighbors," he said.

Netanyahu told the audience that destroying the drone was a demonstration of Israel's resolve.

"Israel will not allow Iran's regime to put a noose of terror around our neck," he said. "We will act if necessary, not just against Iran's proxies that are attacking us but against Iran itself."

Lebanese Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf accused Israel of being hypocritical, saying that he'd had "an Israeli drone above my head for the past 15 years" and warning about any aggression from his country's neighbor.

"Lebanon has no belligerent intent on anybody, but watch out, we will defend ourselves," he said. "We also have partners, we also have friends, we also have people willing to die for their country. We are for peace, yet we will not stand for any threat, and we will not accept any aggression."

Information for this article was contributed by David Rising and Geir Moulson of The Associated Press; by Katrin Bennhold and Isabel Kershner of The New York Times; and by Griff Witte and Michael Birnbaum of The Washington Post.

Photo by AP/SVEN HOPPE
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks Sunday at the Munich Security Conference.
Photo by AP/SVEN HOPPE
During his speech at the Munich Security Conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called anti-Iran remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a cartoonish circus.”

A Section on 02/19/2018

Print Headline: Nuke deal roused Iran, Netanyahu asserts

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