Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran’s effort to develop nuclear weapons is in a “red zone,” and the U.S. must set a clear “red line” that Iran can’t cross without risking a military attack.
“They’re in the red zone,” Netanyahu said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday. “They’re in the last 20 yards. And you can’t let them cross that goal line. You can’t let them score a touchdown.”
Raising the stakes in a dispute with Washington over how quickly military action may be needed to thwart or delay Iran’s nuclear program, the prime minister said Iran is six months away from having about 90 percent of the enriched uranium that would be needed for a nuclear bomb.
“I think that you have to place that red line before them now, before it’s too late,” Netanyahu said.
Officials from the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna have said that Iran has stepped up its efforts to enrich uranium to about 20 percent, though there’s no evidence that it has moved to the 90 percent needed to make nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is intended only for civilian purposes. Israeli leaders have said Iran’s atomic program is for military purposes and poses a threat to Israel’s existence.
In urging a tougher stance from the Obama administration, Netanyahu likened the Iran case to President John Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis, when a potential nuclear war was averted after the Soviet Union withdrew missiles from Cuba.
“When President Kennedy set a red line in the Cuban missile crisis, he was criticized,” Netanyahu said. “But it turns out it didn’t bring war. It actually pushed war back and probably purchased decades of peace with the Soviet Union.”
Netanyahu didn’t say explicitly what the “red line” should be when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday that “there’s still a considerable time and space” before Iran would be able to obtain a nuclear weapon.
The imposition of economic sanctions has Iran’s economy “beginning to buckle” and its oil production down by 40 percent, she said. The sanctions were designed to pressure Iran to change course on its nuclear program.
“But this is not an infinite window,” Rice said. “And we’ve made very clear that the president’s bottom line is Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appeared to mock the notion of setting “red lines” in an interview with Foreign Policy last week.
Leaders of the U.S., Israel and other nations don’t have “a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions,” Panetta said. “What they have are facts that are presented to them about what a country is up to, and then they weigh what kind of action is needed to be taken in order to deal with that situation.”
Underscoring the tension between the U.S. and Israel over Iran strategy, Panetta added, “Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner.”
The U.S. and Israel sparred last week over how to handle Iran, with Netanyahu and President Barack Obama holding an hour-long telephone conversation about the issue.
Last week’s rift began when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a Bloomberg Radio interview Sept. 9 that the U.S. is “not setting deadlines” on negotiations with Iran. On Sept. 11, Netanyahu said on the CBS “This Morning” show that unless the U.S. and others draw a “red line” regarding Iran’s nuclear work, they will have no right to put a “red light” against possible Israeli action.
Leaders of the two countries spoke later that day by telephone, and the White House said in a statement that Obama and Netanyahu “reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Netanyahu said the next day that he has a duty to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon even when “the best of friends” disagree.
“We had a good conversation,” Netanyahu said yesterday with CNN’s “State of the Union.” “What’s guiding me, contrary to what I’ve read in the United States, is not the United States’s political calendar, it’s the Iranian nuclear calendar.”
As Iran gets closer to completing its first nuclear bomb, Netanyahu said on CNN, “The differences between us are -- and our capabilities are -- becoming less and less important, because Iran is fast approaching a point where it could disappear from our capability of stopping them.”
Arizona Senator John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on the same program that the U.S. should make clear to Israel privately what its “red line” is on Iran’s nuclear development.
“We should in quiet negotiations say, ‘This is a line that you, Israel, can be confident that we will not let them cross and we will act with you militarily,’” McCain said.
Two veteran U.S. diplomats said the notion of setting “red lines” is impractical and too constraining.
“That’s an approach I think that probably can’t work, simply because the Iranians may be doing things already that we don’t know about,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on CBS.
Haass said the U.S. should instead set a deadline for Iran that specifies “all the enrichment material they have to get rid of, the international inspections they have to accept,” to avoid the risk of military attack and get economic sanctions eased.
‘Locks You In’
“The idea of putting out a public red line, in effect issuing an ultimatum, is something that no president would do,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Even Netanyahu hasn’t done so, “in terms of Israel’s own actions, because it locks you in,” Indyk said.
Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for U.S. president, has sought to portray Obama as insufficiently supportive of Israel. Netanyahu, on NBC, deflected questions about the U.S. presidential race, saying Obama and Romney are “equally committed” to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu described Iran at times as a rational actor on the world stage that will respond to threats made by Israel or the U.S.
“Once the Iranians understand that there’s a line that they can’t cross, they’re not likely to cross it,” he said.
At other times, he described the Iranian regime as being driven by “an unbelievable fanaticism” that causes its leaders to “put their zealotry above their survival.”
He added, “I wouldn’t rely on their rationality.”
U.S. officials don’t all share Netanyahu’s belief that Iran’s leaders value zealotry above survival, arguing that despite their rhetoric their top priority is ensuring the survival of the Islamic Republic and continuing to export their brand of religious revolution.
That’s why the Iranians try to wipe their fingerprints off many of their terrorist attacks by using proxies such as the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and, more recently, what they thought was a Mexican drug cartel to murder Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., said two American officials.
Still, it isn’t safe to assume that Cold War-style deterrence would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran from attacking Israel or giving a nuclear device to terrorists. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is aware that using a nuclear weapon or attacking Israel, U.S. bases or troops, or Saudi Arabia or other Persian Gulf states would bring a devastating American or U.S.- Israeli counterattack, they said.
Yet Iran’s desire to preserve the Islamic Republic doesn’t rule out a miscalculation, mistake, or hot-headed decision -- all of which would be infinitely more dangerous if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, the U.S. officials said.