Israel's Netanyahu vows to fight 'Iranian curtain'

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of the State of Israel, addresses the 72nd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York. PHOTO: AFP

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to fight an "Iranian curtain" descending on the Middle East, pledging to prevent Tehran from ever establishing a permanent foothold in Syria.

Netanyahu - who in recent years has coined his own sort of theatre at the annual United Nations speech marathon with podium props and dramatic warnings - was in a lighter mood for 2017, cracking jokes and rejoicing over the rise of US President Donald Trump.

But his message on Tuesday (Sept 19) was ultimately no less severe as he chose to echo Winston Churchill's 1946 speech that declared that communist Eastern Europe had come under an "Iron Curtain" of Soviet subjugation.

"From the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, from Tehran to Tartus, an Iranian curtain is descending across the Middle East," Netanyahu warned the General Assembly.

"Those who threaten us with annihilation put themselves in mortal peril. Israel will defend itself with the full force of our arms and the full power of our convictions.

"We will act to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria for its air, sea and ground forces," he said, also vowing to prevent Iran from producing any weapons that could hit the Jewish state.

Iran has been aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraq's government in their fights against the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for a slew of bloody attacks around the world.

Iran's ruling Shiite clerics are also sworn foes of Israel and have supported the militant movements Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Netanyahu has long insisted that Iran, which also has tense relations with major Sunni Arab states, is the pre-eminent threat and unsuccessfully fought to scuttle Iran's 2015 deal with global powers to give up its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

Netanyahu said he was proven right and that Iran since the agreement has been "like a hungry tiger unleashed, not joining the community of nations but devouring nations, one after the other." .

The right-leaning Israeli leader heaped praise on Trump, who in his own speech hours earlier said the deal with Iran championed by his predecessor Barack Obama was an "embarrassment" and separately threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea if the regime attacks.

In years of listening to UN speeches, "none were bolder, none were more courageous and forthright than the one delivered by President Trump today," Netanyahu said.

UN inspectors say Iran has fulfilled its commitments to give up its nuclear activities under the agreement, which was reached with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.

Netanyahu has doubted Iranian intentions and voiced concern that some provisions on curbing uranium enrichment do not go beyond 2025.

Netanyahu directed his barbs at Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranians in May overwhelmingly re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who has campaigned on the nuclear deal and better relations with the West.

The Israeli leader drew a distinction between Iranians and their government, saying in Farsi to the Iranian people: "You are our friends." Iran, unlike Israel's Arab neighbours, still has a thriving Jewish community. Until the 1979 Islamic revolution overthrew the US-allied shah, Iran was Israel's primary ally in the region.

Netanyahu opened his speech not with his often booming voice but a grin. He boasted of further breaking his country's diplomatic isolation by visiting six continents in the past year - a first for a prime minister of Israel.

"Now, it's true, I haven't yet visited Antarctica, but one day I want to go there too because I've heard that penguins are also enthusiastic supporters of Israel," he said, explaining that the birds can see black-and-white moral distinctions.

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