Merkel condemns Iran tweet but still backs nuclear deal

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday she condemns a tweet from Iran’s top leader saying that Israel is a “cancerous tumor” that needs to be removed and pledged to increase pressure on Tehran to scale back its military influence in the region.

Speaking alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Merkel said Israel’s security was a top priority for Germany.

The two leaders were asked about a tweet Sunday from the account of Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying his country’s “stance against Israel is the same stance we have always taken. #Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated: it is possible and it will happen.”

The Twitter account is run by Khamenei’s office and it’s not known if he dictates the tweets himself. The quote is from several years ago.

Netanyahu called the tweet “quite extraordinary.”

“Iran calls for our destruction, but it’s also seeking nuclear weapons to carry out its genocidal design,” he said.

Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons, and the U.N. says it has met its obligations under the 2015 nuclear accord with world powers, which requires it to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

Netanyahu was a staunch opponent of the deal, and welcomed the Trump administration’s decision last month to withdraw from it. Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China, which also signed the agreement, have said they want to preserve it.

Merkel said “we sharply condemn what the Iranian leadership said,” but at the same time reiterated her view that the nuclear agreement was the best way to prevent Iran from developing atomic weapons.

“We are not in agreement on all questions, but we are friends, we are partners,” Merkel said of the visiting Israeli leader.

The other co-signers of the nuclear agreement met last month in Vienna after the U.S. pulled out of the deal, reaffirming their commitment to it.

Netanyahu suggested the deal was bound to collapse without U.S. involvement, but said he agreed with Merkel that “Iran’s aggressions” needed to be kept in check.

“We have some disagreements, as you can see, but they’re not really on goal, they’re more on method,” he said.

Netanyahu has argued that the economic relief provided under the nuclear deal has allowed Iran to expand its military interference across the region, where it backs the Syrian government as well as armed groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Berlin was Netanyahu’s first stop in a European trip to try and turn key allies Germany, France and Britain to his way of thinking on the Iran deal. French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said France will insist on having a dialogue with Iran.

The possible unraveling of the nuclear deal has raised concerns that the U.S. or Israel might resort to war if Iran ramps up its nuclear activities.

Khamenei, who makes the final decisions on all major policies in Iran, on Monday warned that anyone who fires one missile at his country “will be hit by 10" in response, but dismissed fears of war as “propaganda” by the West.

Khamenei said in a speech that he has ordered atomic authorities to increase the country’s nuclear enrichment capacity. The increase he detailed in his speech would not exceed limits set by the nuclear accord.

The supreme leader also reiterated his support for the country’s ballistic missile program. One of the main objections made by critics of the nuclear deal was that it did not address the missile program, which Israel and Gulf countries view as a threat.

“Production of various missiles and missile power provides security,” Khamenei said.

Earlier Monday, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency renewed calls for Iran to provide “timely and proactive cooperation” in inspections that are part of the nuclear deal.

At a news conference later, Yukiya Amano said his statement was “not an expression of concerns or complaints, but rather an encouragement to Iran.”

Last month, in its first report since the U.S. withdrawal, the IAEA said Iran continues to stay below the maximum level of uranium the deal allows it to enrich. The agency’s report also said Iran appears to be fulfilling other obligations, but is slow when it comes to “complementary access” inspections.