Sept. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations that the international community must impose explicit “red lines” on Iran’s uranium enrichment program to prevent it from attaining nuclear weapons.
“Red lines don’t lead to war, they prevent war,” Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly today. Using a rudimentary cartoon diagram of a bomb to illustrate the progress of Iran’s uranium enrichment, the Israeli leader said the Islamic Republic had already passed the first stage toward nuclear weaponization.
“By next spring, at most next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and moved on to the final stage,” he said. “From there it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks, before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”
That was the Israeli leader’s most specific timing for a crisis point. In recent months, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that Israel may feel compelled to strike Iran’s enrichment facilities as early as this fall.
Netanyahu’s speech follows weeks of open disagreement with President Barack Obama’s administration over Iran. Warning that the Islamic Republic may be just months away from developing a nuclear weapons capability, Netanyahu has asked the U.S. to set explicit “red lines” that would justify military action, a step U.S. officials have declined to take as they depend for now on economic sanctions to pressure Iran.
Iran, which says its nuclear facilities are for peaceful civilian purposes, has vowed to retaliate if attacked.
Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are under international monitoring to prevent diversion to weapons use. The International Atomic Energy Agency said it has seen no diversion. Still, the agency reiterated last month that it “is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
Netanyahu “sure made it clear that the nuclear red line is spring or summer of 2013,” said Mark Dubowitz of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has advised the administration and Congress on sanctions against Iran. “That’s when Iran will have enough medium enriched uranium, at 20 percent, which is 90 percent of the way to military grade uranium, to build an atomic weapon.”
To produce a bomb, Iran would have to further process the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, a level used to fuel its medical reactor, to 90 percent to make a single bomb, which would involve abandoning the current “safeguards” monitoring by the IAEA. That would give the U.S. ample notice to take action to prevent it, U.S. officials have said. It would also require Iran have the technical capability to fabricate a bomb and detonator, as well as made it capable of being delivered by missile or other means.
Netanyahu spoke at the UN a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood at the same spot and cited what he termed the “continued threat by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to a military action against our great nation.”
Netanyahu accused Iran of supporting Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups throughout the Middle East and being behind a series of attacks carried out against Israeli diplomats in several countries during the past year.
“Given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. “Who would be safe in Europe? Who would be safe in America?”
U.S. officials have said they believe Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hasn’t made a decision to develop an atomic bomb. Obama, in his UN address Sept. 25, said the U.S. would do whatever it takes to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and warned that time for a diplomatic resolution “is not unlimited.” He didn’t offer a specific red line on Iranian actions, as Netanyahu has sought.
“I very much appreciate the President’s position as does everyone in my country,” Netanyahu said, backing away from recent public criticism. “We share the goal of stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to meet later today in New York City with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The U.S. is “not setting deadlines” for Iran and still considers negotiations as “by far the best approach” to the Islamic Republic, Clinton said in an interview with Bloomberg Radio on Sept. 9. Netanyahu responded two days later that “those in the international community who refuse to put a red line before Iran don’t have the moral right to place a red light before Israel” to forestall military action.
The debate over Iran has spilled over into the U.S. elections, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney accusing Obama of throwing “Israel under the bus” and criticizing the president for not meeting with Netanyahu during his three-day visit to the U.S.
The White House said the meeting isn’t taking place because of scheduling issues with the election so close, and that Obama and Netanyahu will talk on the phone later today.
Talks between Iran and the IAEA, and negotiations with the so-called P5+1 nations -- the U.S., Russia, China, France, the U.K. and Germany -- haven’t found a formula to slow the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment program. Nor have economic sanctions imposed against Iran by the U.S. and the Europe Union forced concessions from the Tehran government.
Netanyahu’s UN speech followed earlier remarks by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who spoke to the General Assembly of “the catastrophic danger of the racist Israeli settlement of our country, Palestine.”
Netanyahu responded that “we won’t solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the UN.”
“We won’t solve our conflict with unilateral declarations of statehood,” he said. “We have to sit together, negotiate together, and reach a mutual compromise, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the one and only Jewish state.”
Following his UN address, Netanyahu met with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at his official Gracie Mansion residence. Bloomberg said the Israeli leader “made a very compelling case today why a clear red line is needed, and why that will help preserve peace.”
“And I am sure that the U.S. and Israel can work out a common policy in the interests of both nations and in the interests of peace,” Bloomberg said. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Working out that joint policy will require Netanyahu, in his private discussions with U.S. officials, to go beyond the generalities outlined in today’s address.
“In continuing to talk about red lines without defining them, or clearly laying out the consequences, Netanyahu continues to erode Israel’s deterrence,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington policy group. “That’s not good for his -- or Israel’s -- credibility.”