Benjamin Netanyahu warns against Iran talks during 'lightning visit' to meet Boris Johnson

The Israeli and UK prime ministers meet to discuss Iran during visits by senior US officials

Benjamin Netanyahu and Boris Johnson meet in London in 2019. The British prime minister said the UK would not recognise Israel’s planned annexation of the West Bank. Reuters
Benjamin Netanyahu and Boris Johnson meet in London in 2019. The British prime minister said the UK would not recognise Israel’s planned annexation of the West Bank. Reuters

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to manage the fallout from any international rapprochement with Iran in a series of meetings in London on Thursday, including talks with Boris Johnson and top US officials.

During the visit Mr Netanyahu indicated he was taking seriously the prospect of a meeting between the US President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, perhaps as soon as late September in New York.

“I believe there is chance that Mr Trump will meet Iran's President Rouhani,” he said. "I am sure Mr Trump will take a much tougher position than before. I don't tell the president who he should meet or who he shouldn't meet."

A diplomatic initiative by President Emmanuel Macron has pushed a proposal of talks between President Trump and the Iranian leader into the frame, despite a spike in tensions between Washington and Tehran.

On Thursday Mr Trump appeared open to the idea, even though his administration had dumped fresh sanctions on the regime. "Sure, anything's possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem," he said, pointing to high inflation in Iran. "We could solve it in 24 hours."

One of the first foreign heads of government to meet the new British prime minister, Mr Netanyahu said it wasn’t time for dialogue with Tehran. London has supported the French initiative. "We have the challenge of Iran's aggression and terrorism, and I'd like to talk to you about how we can work together to counter these things for the benefit of peace," the Israeli leader said at the opening of the 30-minute encounter in Downing St.

Mr Johnson told the Israeli leader that Britain remain dedicated to reaching a resolution in the Middle East peace process, based on two-state parameters.

“The Prime Minister and Prime Minister Netanyahu also discussed the Middle East Peace Process," a Downing St spokeswoman said. "The Prime Minister said that he looks forward to seeing the US Administration’s detailed proposals for a viable Israel-Palestinian peace agreement that addresses the legitimate concerns of both parties.

“Both Prime Ministers agreed on the need to prevent Iran getting a nuclear weapon and stop wider destabilising Iranian behaviour. The Prime Minister stressed the need for dialogue and a diplomatic solution.

Hours before Mr Netanyahu landed in Britain, Iran had said it had begun the third phase of its disengagement from the 2015 nuclear deal. That announcement was seized on by Mr Netanyahu. “This morning we were informed of another violation by Iran, this time in its striving to attain nuclear weapons,” he said.

“This is in addition to Iran’s aggressive actions against international shipping, against regional countries, and also its attempts to carry out murderous attacks against Israel, attempts that have not been stopped,” he added.

After the talks, the Israeli leader planned to meet with Britain's defence secretary Ben Wallace and the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. The Israeli team said that Mr Netanyahu was taking the opportunity for a first meeting with Mr Esper ahead of the Israeli elections on September. There is growing speculation in Israel that the prime minister is hoping Mr Trump will announce a long-term defence pact with Israel before the end of the campaign.

“The prime minister will discuss with Secretary Esper Israel’s security needs. They spoke last night on the phone and decided to broaden their conversation in London,” an Israeli statement said.

The brevity of the Downing St meeting and the dash to secure face time with American officials in London left some analysts pointing out it was clear where Mr Netanyahu's priorities were. "Netanyahu’s visit to London to meet with the PM and US Sec Def Esper is framed as an effort to head off a perceived softening of the US’ position viz Iran, pivoting away from its current campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ to possible negotiations," said Hugh Lovatt, a fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations. "Presumably he also wants to draw the UK away from its current EU-aligned position into a harder post-Brexit stance on the Iran file."

The visit comes amid continued tensions with Iran as the 2015 nuclear deal unravels and US sanctions continue to hit the country’s oil exports.

The French inducement to Tehran centres on an offer of a $15 billion credit lifeline to replace lost crude oil revenues since US sanctions came into force. Despite the diplomatic progress, Iran said it was ready to begin work on advanced centrifuges that will enrich uranium faster. “All limitations on our research and development will be lifted on Friday,” Mr Rouhani said. But it also looked to ease some the tensions with a gesture that saw the release of seven crew members of the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero.

The freed mariners flew out of Iran on Thursday, the ship’s owner said.

Despite his encouraging words on talks, Mr Trump ruled out an easing of sanctions. “That’s not happening,” he said. “That won’t be happening.”

Later the US vice president told Mr Johnson that the United States supported Britain's planned departure from the EU and was ready, willing and able to negotiate a free trade agreement.

As he received Mr Pence outside 10 Downing Street, the prime minister said that Britain's National Health Service would not be included in negotiations with the United States for a trade deal once Britain has left the European Union.

Mr Johnson then joked: "We're not too keen on your chlorinated chicken."

The Downing St spokeswoman said both sides had underlined their determination to reach a trade deal. “Both reiterated their commitment to negotiating an ambitious free trade deal after the UK leaves the EU. They agreed that setting up the UK-US Special Relationship Economic Working Group was a positive step," she said.

Mr Pence said ahead of the meeting that the US “stands with the United Kingdom in its decision to leave the European Union”.

“Make no mistake about it, America respects the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, respects the will of the people of the United Kingdom and we respect and support the UK’s decision to leave the European Union," he added.

Updated: September 5, 2019 08:03 PM

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