Armed with a cartoon-like picture of a smoldering bomb, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Thursday on the world to set a “clear red line” on Iran’s enrichment of uranium, warning that Iran must be stopped before it accumulates enough material to produce warhead fuel.
Netanyahu told the U.N. General Assembly that Iran could manufacture a sufficient stock of enriched uranium for a weapon by next summer. While he didn’t explicitly restate earlier threats to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from doing so, his meaning was clear.
“The red line must be drawn on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can see and credibly target,” he said. “I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down, and it will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy.”
“Nothing could imperil the world more than a nuclear-armed Iran," said Netanyahu, who views Iran as an existential threat to Israel, citing Iranian leaders’ denial of the Holocaust, arsenal of ballistic missiles and statements that the Jewish state shouldn’t exist. He also warned U.N. delegates that Iran could slip a nuclear weapon to Islamic terrorists.
Israel is widely believed to lack the military capacity to substantially set back Iran’s program without U.S. involvement. President Barack Obama, speaking to the General Assembly on Tuesday, said the United States would “do what it must” to prevent Iran from developing a warhead. But he has rejected calls that he set an ultimatum for military action that could have devastating consequences, saying there is still time for crippling sanctions to force Iran into a diplomatic settlement.
Netanyahu’s government also is riven by differences over the sanctions and how long it would take Iran to produce a weapon. In the latest evidence of those splits, an Israeli Foreign Ministry report leaked to an Israeli newspaper seemed to suggest Thursday that sanctions could work, saying that the measures have severely cut Iran’s sales of petroleum and access to hard currency to a harsher degree than acknowledged.
Netanyahu pushed back, however, saying that the Iranian economy has been “hit hard” but that sanctions and negotiations between Tehran and the United States, the European Union, China and Russia have failed to halt Iran’s enrichment program.
Speaking with journalists Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the notion that sanctions have seriously hurt his country’s economy and mocked the idea of deeper European sanctions at a time when “the European Union is on the verge of collapse.” He said Iran’s median household income has gone up, the wealth divide has narrowed and oil income has remained steady despite sanctions.
“The overall volume of Iran’s economy has increased incredibly over the past few years,” Ahmadinejad said. “We went from being the world’s 22nd-largest economy to being the world’s 17th-largest economy.”
Enrichment involves thousands of interconnected, high-speed centrifuges refining uranium hexafluoride gas into low-enriched uranium for power reactors and medical isotopes, and highly enriched uranium for bomb fuel, depending on the duration of the refining process.
Iran insists that its program is for peaceful purposes. But it has for years refused to answer the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency’s questions about evidence that it secretly researched a warhead. Tehran also has spurned U.N. demands to halt enrichment, which it has expanded from its main centrifuge plant at Natanz to an airstrike-resistant site beneath a mountain near the holy city of Qom.
The United States and the European Union charge that Iran, which hid its program from U.N. inspectors for 18 years until 2002, is developing the capacity to build a bomb. They have imposed their own sanctions on Tehran, and they’ve been joined by Russia and China in approving four rounds of U.N. measures.
About midway through his speech Thursday, Netanyahu held up the picture of a bomb with a burning fuse – resembling those in children’s cartoons – to illustrate the amount of enriched uranium that Iran has produced, according to the IAEA. In a dramatic fashion, he used a red pen to draw a line at how much more it requires for a weapon.
“Iran is 70 percent of the way there,” he said, referring to the stock of low-enriched uranium that the Islamic republic has refined to almost 20 percent. That level of medium-enriched uranium is more easily and quickly turned into the 90 percent highly enriched uranium required for a warhead.
“Now they’re well into the second stage. And by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move onto the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks, before they get enough uranium for the first bomb,” he said.
Netanyahu said there would be “little difference” between “a nuclear-armed Iran” and a “nuclear-armed al Qaida,” charging that “they are both fired by the same hatred. They’re both driven by the same lust for violence.”
Several experts said that it appeared that Netanyahu was setting as a red line for a military strike the point at which Iran accumulates enough 20 percent enriched uranium to convert into the amount of highly enriched uranium required for a warhead.
“What he was saying was that once Iran gets what it needs in 20 percent enriched uranium to be able to convert into weapons-grade, that’s when he says Iran should be attacked,” said Greg Theilman, a former State Department intelligence analyst with the Arms Control Association.
Theilman disputed the urgency of Netanyahu’s timeline, saying that Iran’s centrifuge networks would have to be upgraded before they could be used to manufacture highly enriched uranium. IAEA inspectors and monitoring systems inside Iran’s enrichment facilities, he said, would detect the work as soon as it began.
“As soon as they crossed that red line, IAEA inspectors would know about it. The whole international community would know they were racing for a bomb,” he said.
Moreover, Theilman explained, Iran would have to produce more than one device before it represented a credible nuclear threat. The Iran regime couldn’t count on a single device working properly, and it would need more than one to deter Israel, which is widely believed to have several hundred nuclear weapons, or the United States from launching a devastating nuclear counterstrike.
A senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity as per diplomatic protocol, said the U.N. Security Council is still pursuing a two-track course of pressure and dialogue. “We all heard the speech today, and we will continue to have our discussions,” the official said of Netanyahu. The official said that while sanctions and pressure are important, diplomacy is the preferred course.
“Iran wants and looks forward to additional dialogue to try to reach an agreement. But that discussion has to be, as I said, a credible one,” the official said. “And we have to make sure that the timetable that’s being used is not just being used to buy time for Iran to continue its nuclear program.”