JERUSALEM: Israel urged the visiting Russian president on Monday to step up pressure on Iran to curb its suspect nuclear program but there was no sign of any concessions from Vladimir Putin.
With Russia an influential voice in the international debate over Iran, the outcome of the 24-hour visit could have deep implications for whether Israel decides to strike Tehran’s nuclear facilities or give the international community more time to find a diplomatic solution to the standoff.
Israel and Russia enjoy deep economic and cultural relations bolstered by the more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who now live in the Jewish state. But they have deeply differing approaches to Iran’s nuclear program and the uprising in Tehran’s close ally Syria. Russia has blocked drastic action against the two countries, while Israel has repeatedly hinted it may act militarily to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
In a brief statement after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Putin said their talks covered the situation in Iran and the bloody uprising in Syria, but added that he saw negotiations as the only solution for such matters.
Netanyahu countered with far more detail.
“We agree that nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran pose a grave danger, first for Israel but also for the region and the whole world,” he said. “Two things need to be done now: we need to bolster the sanctions and bolster the demands.”
Netanyahu insisted that all uranium enrichment in Iran must cease and its underground nuclear facility near Qom be dismantled. He added that “the killing and horrible suffering of the Syrian people” must be stopped.
Israel sees Iran as its most dangerous enemy because it is convinced the country’s nuclear program is meant to build bombs and not for peaceful purposes such as energy production, as Iran insists. The fears are compounded by Tehran’s frequent calls for Israel’s destruction, support for anti-Israel militants and arsenal of ballistic missiles.
Iran is under four sets of Security Council sanctions because of its nuclear program. Israel has welcomed these but warned they are not enough. Efforts aimed at tougher U.N. sanctions have been opposed in the Security Council by Russia and China, both permanent veto-wielding members that have extensive financial interests in Iran.
Russia and China will join world powers in a new set of low-level negotiations with Iran in July, after the last round yielded no breakthroughs.
Another Israeli concern is Syria. Russia has continued its arms sales to Damascus throughout the violent popular uprising against President Bashar Assad. Israel is afraid Russian weapons in Syria will fall into the hands of allied Hezbollah militants in neighboring Lebanon, something Israel says happened during its 2006 war with the Lebanese group.
Putin began his official visit at a ceremony to inaugurate a Soviet Red Army memorial in the coastal city of Netanya, paying tribute to fallen soldiers of World War II that included tens of thousands of Jews.
“The memory of the fallen is sacred in my eyes. I am moved that you feel the same thing in Israel,” he said, facing the sculpture of a massive pair of wings on a wind-swept hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
President Shimon Peres linked the past to the challenges of the present.
“I am confident that Russia, which defeated fascism, will not allow similar threats today. Not the Iranian threat. And not the bloodshed in Syria,” he said at the ceremony.