Both braced for American sanctions and strategically aligned against the West, Moscow and Tehran will grow closer still should President Donald Trump pull Washington out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal this week, a Russian official warned on Saturday.
The Russian threat comes amid a final push from France, Britain and Germany to keep Trump in the accord ahead of a May 12 deadline set upon them by the US administration to come up with "fixes" to its most controversial terms. It also comes on the heels of a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow on Wednesday, where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss "regional developments," Israeli officials said.
European intelligence teams visited Israel this weekend to examine files obtained by the Mossad in a raid in Tehran earlier this year that allegedly document Iran's extensive efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The cache, according to Netanyahu and the Trump administration, shows that Iran entered into the deal on "false pretenses" and "lies" – although supporters of the deal argue the files amount to an archive of documents predating adherence to the nuclear agreement.
Trump and Netanyahu see the findings as part of their justification for scrapping the agreement, which they believe emboldens Iran in the region and legitimizes it as a threshold nuclear power.
Netanyahu's visit to Moscow will focus on the potential of a US withdrawal and its consequences. Prior to the meeting, Netanyahu will take part in the Russian Victory Day parade that marks the defeat of Nazi Germany, his office said.
The Israeli premier has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at least six times in the past year alone.
The Israeli premier also spoke with leaders of Australia, India and Britain to "update them on the important material that he revealed regarding the Iranian nuclear archive," according to the Prime Minister's Office.
Trump has not informed Israel’s of any final decision with regard to the Iran deal, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told Channel Two on Saturday night.
He spoke of the importance of preventing Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. Iran is trying to place an anti-aircraft system in Syria that could “shut down our skies,” Liberman said.
“No country would tolerate such a threat” that would force the closure of its airspace, the defense minister added.
“Lets try to imagine the opposite scenario. What if Israel suddenly set up an anti-aircraft system near the Iranian border? How would it [Tehran] react?” Liberman said.
“We will not allow [Iran] to turn the Syrian soil into an advanced front against Israel,” Liberman said.
Israel, Liberman said, “has no interest in [going to] war and is doing everything it can to prevent it.”
He also praised the ties between Jerusalem and Moscow, in spite of Russia’s presence in Syria and its cooperation with Iran. “We have been close to the Russians for years and there is an open line [between the two countries].” Liberman said.
Trump is threatening to withdraw from the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by reimposing nuclear sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under terms of the agreement. That would likely collapse the deal entirely, according to senior Iranian officials, who are threatening to resume uranium enrichment work critical to the construction of nuclear weapons if Trump pulls out.
The Trump administration wants to secure expanded and expedited access for international inspectors to Iran's military sites, suspected of hosting nuclear weapons experimentation and research; an end to Iran's work on ballistic missiles, which Iranian atomic files published by Israel this week show were Tehran's vehicle of choice for potential nuclear warheads; permanent extensions to caps on Iran's uranium enrichment program, set to expire within a decade; and a comprehensive Western strategy to deter Iran's military standing across the Middle East.
Vladimir Yermakov, a senior non-proliferation official in the Russian Foreign Ministry, dismissed the American concerns on Saturday.
"It might even be easier for us on the economic front, because we won't have any limits on economic cooperation with Iran,. We would develop bilateral relations in all areas – energy, transport, high tech, medicine," Yermakov said. "If the United States breaks an international agreement backed by UN Security Council resolutions, it will be the United States that should suffer the consequences."
Before the JCPOA was completed in the summer of 2015, Tehran fought US sanctions by promoting a "resistance economy" – a term now returning to the lexicon of state-run Iranian media.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said in remarks on state television that Iran "has the capacity to defeat [US] bullying" and would resist US efforts to rewrite the accord.
"You are saying that you do not accept something that was set up under the last president and it should be changed," Shamkhani said. "Who, then, guarantees that if something is done with you, the next president won't come and refuse to accept it?"
Russian and Iranian officials have discussed ways to join forces to withstand US sanctions pressure, as part of an "axis of resistance," Yermakov said.
Veterans of the last administration, including a primary drafter of the JCPOA, former US Secretary of State John Kerry, are passionately advocating for Trump to stay in the accord. According to his hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, Kerry has been conducting "shadow diplomacy" in recent weeks by meeting with Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, with whom he built a strong personal relationship during the 2013-2015 nuclear talks, to strategize a resuscitation of the agreement.
Critics of Kerry, of the deal and the of Obama administration pounced on the reports, claiming Kerry's lobbying amounts to a violation of the historic Logan Act. The centuries-old law bars American citizens from working to undermine official US foreign policy.
Tovah Lazaroff and Reuters contributed to this report.