Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Iran’s growing presence in Syria “poses a threat to Israel, the Middle East, and the whole world.”
“Mr. President, with joint efforts we are defeating Islamic State, and this is a very important thing. But the bad thing is that where the defeated Islamic State group vanishes, Iran is stepping in,” Netanyahu said on August 23 as he met with Putin in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
“We cannot forget for a single minute that Iran threatens every day to annihilate Israel,” he added. “[Iran] arms terrorist organizations, it sponsors and initiates terror.”
Netanyahu said that “Iran is already well on its way to controlling Iraq, Yemen, and to a large extent in already in practice in control of Lebanon.”
Israeli officials said Netanyahu will tell Putin that despite tensions between Moscow and Washington, Russia and the United States need to cooperate to reach an arrangement in Syria that will ensure Tehran does not strengthen its presence there.
Both Russia and Iran back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his six-year civil war against armed Syrian rebels.
Iran, an avowed enemy of Israel, has not responded to Netanyahu’s repeated allegations that it seeks to bolster its military presence on the Jewish state’s borders.
Recent Israeli media reports have featured satellite photos purportedly showing weapons factories that Iran is helping to build in both Syria and Lebanon.
Ahead of his meeting with Putin, Netanyahu said that “Iran’s aggression has not diminished” since the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers. The deal placed curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
The Sochi meeting was the sixth between the two leaders since September 2015. The head of Israeli spy agency Mossad, Yossi Cohen, and Netanyahu’s new national security chief, Meir Ben-Shabbat, were expected to join Netanyahu and Putin in Sochi.
Israeli officials say Netanyahu opposes a southwest Syria cease-fire recently announced by Russia and the United States, as he believes it will enable Iran and its ally, the Lebanese Hizballah militia, to solidify their presence in the country.
Russia and the United States maintain that they protected Israel’s interests in establishing the cease-fire.
Israel’s main concern is that with both Moscow and Washington distracted by other matters, the Russians and the Americans will make do with such piecemeal cease-fire agreements and will not try to reach broader arrangements that determine how Syria will look after the civil war is over, Israeli officials say.
With no broad agreement in place, it would easier for Iran, Hizballah, and the Shi’ite militias brought to Syria by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to augment their presence in the country, the officials say.
Israel believes that after the civil war is over, Russia and the United States must ensure that anyone who is not Syrian leaves the country, the officials say.
As in previous meetings between Netanyahu and Putin, the Israeli prime minister was expected to express Israel’s concern that weapons supplied by Russia to Iran and Syria are being given to Hizballah.
Over the years Israel has raised similar allegations, but Russia has repeatedly denied them.
Beyond concerns about Iran, Netanyahu’s talks with Putin likely involved coordinating their military actions in Syria.
Russia and Israel have established a “hotline” to avoid accidental clashes in the country.
Israel has sought to avoid being dragged into Syrian conflict, but has acknowledged carrying out strikes to stop advanced-weapons deliveries to Hizballah.
With reporting by Reuters, TASS, Interfax, AFP, Interfax, and Haaretz