MUNICH (REUTERS) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday (Feb 18) that Israel would act against Iran, not just its allies in the Middle East, if needed, reiterating his country's position that Teheran was the world's greatest threat.
As tensions increase in the Middle East over Iran's role in Syria and Yemen and as US President Donald Trump presses for a tougher approach on Teheran, Israel is seeking wider support to contain its regional nemesis.
Holding a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone after its incursion into Israeli airspace earlier this month, Netanyahu told the Munich Security Conference: "Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck.
"We will act if necessary not just against Iran's proxies but against Iran itself," he said.
In his first address to the annual Munich event, which draws security and defence officials and diplomats from across Europe and the United States, Netanyahu urged his audience to counter Iran immediately, displaying a map showing what he said was Iran's growing presence in the Middle East.
For its part, Iran pushed back. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who also addressed the conference, called Netanyahu's presentation "a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response".
Zarif accused the United States of using the conference to "revive hysteria" against Iran, and denied that Teheran was seeking "hegemony" in the Middle East.
But Netanyahu said Iran was increasing its power as a US-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria was regaining territory from militants.
"The unfortunate thing is that as ISIS compresses and Iran moves in, it is trying to establish this continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen but also trying to create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza," Netanyahu said.
"This is a very dangerous development for our region." Among Israel's main concerns is Lebanon, where the heavily armed Iran-backed Shi'ite militia Hezbollah is part of a coalition government. Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006. Tension between Israel and Lebanon has increased, including over a maritime border dispute.
Lebanon's Defence Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, who spoke after Netanyahu, said: "Watch out, we will defend ourselves...we also have friends." Tensions in the region surged on Feb 10 when anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.
Netanyahu also reiterated his view, shared by Trump, that world powers needed to scrap or rewrite the 2015 nuclear accord with Teheran that curbs Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions in return for economic sanctions' relief.
"It's time to stop them now," Netanyahu said, without specifying any military action. "They're aggressive, they are developing ballistic missiles, they're not inspecting, they have a free highway to massive (uranium) enrichment," he said of the fuel needed for nuclear weapons.
France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, which signed the nuclear deal along with Iran and the United States, say the accord cannot be reopened, that it is working and that Iran is allowing inspections.
Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov said that scrapping the agreement was akin to choosing between war and peace, while John Kerry, the former US secretary of state who helped clinch the agreement, said it was wrong to assume that Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as the 15-year scope of the deal ends.
"If your house is on fire, are you going to refuse to put it out because you are concerned it will light on fire again in 15 years? Or are you going to put it out and use the intervening time to prevent to ever catching fire again?" Kerry said.