Netanyahu Tells Austin Iran Remains Greatest Mideast Threat as Tehran Vows Revenge

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Netanyahu with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, today.
Netanyahu with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, today.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that Iran has never given up its aspirations to obtain nuclear weapons, and that Israel will continue to "defend itself" against Tehran's aggression.

Netanyahu was speaking alongside U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who landed in Israel earlier on Sunday, in a first official visit by a U.S. official since President Joe Biden took office in January.

On Monday, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif blamed Israel for an explosion at the Natanz nuclear site on Sunday, saying that "the Zionists want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions ... they have publicly said that they will not allow this. But we will take our revenge from the Zionists," according to Iranian state TV.

His ministry's spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, told a news conference on Monday that the incident could be considered as an "act against humanity."

"There was no contamination or injuries but it could cause a disaster. It could be considered as an act against humanity," Khatibzadeh said, adding that Iran would take revenge at the "appropriate time." 

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the reports, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that "The fight against Iran and its proxies... is a massive task. The way things are now doesn't mean they will stay that way later on."

The Natanz facility, which is located in the desert in the central province of Isfahan, is the centerpiece of Iran's uranium enrichment program and monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog.

Austin landed in Israel on Sunday, in a first official visit by a U.S. official since President Joe Biden took office in January. Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Austin that Israel views the United States as a full partner in all operational theaters, including Iran, and that the two countries will work closely to ensure that any new deal with Iran prevents an arms race in the region. 

In a joint statement, Gantz pledged to cooperate with the United States on Iran, voicing hope that Israeli security would be safeguarded under any renewed Iranian nuclear deal that Washington reaches.

"We will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel."

Speaking after him, Austin said that the U.S.-Israel relationship is central to regional security, enduring and ironclad. It is built on trust, he said, and that he looks forward to building up that trust.

In his public remarks, Austin did not comment on Iran specifically. He said the Biden administration would continue to ensure Israel's "qualitative military edge" in the Middle East as part of a "strong commitment to Israel and the Israeli people."

"Our bilateral relationship with Israel in particular is central to regional stability and security in the Middle East. During our meeting I reaffirmed to Minister Gantz our commitment to Israel is enduring and it is ironclad," Austin said.

Austin, Netanyahu and Gantz will "continue close consultations on shared priorities, and reaffirm the enduring U.S. commitment to the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership and Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge," the Pentagon said in a statement last week.

Following his time in Israel, Austin will visit Germany, NATO Headquarters in Belgium, and the United Kingdom to discuss "the importance of international defense relationships."

A retired four-star general, Austin served in Afghanistan as commander of the 10th Mountain Division. From 2013-2016 he was the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Israel and Iran have in recent weeks reported sabotage to their ships at sea. Israel says it is trying to stem a build-up of Iranian forces within next-door Syria.

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