Why Netanyahu’s UN Speech Wasn’t Funny
Whoever produced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cheesy graphic of a bomb for his United Nations General Assembly presentation today should consider a new line of work. Netanyahu, who tends to pomposity, is an easy target to start with, and his cartoonish graphic was predictably mocked.
It's too bad Netanyahu's talk played for snickers, however. His topic -- Iran's nuclear program -- was as serious as they come, and his message was smart and a little different this time. It's not usual for an Israeli leader to downplay the capabilities of the country's intelligence services. Yet Netanyahu did just that in his plea, mostly to the U.S., to draw a red line beyond which Iran cannot advance its nuclear program without provoking a military response.
Noting, rightly, that Israel's intelligence agencies are superb, Netanyahu observed that they nevertheless could not be counted on to know when and where Iran had produced a detonator for a nuclear bomb or assembled a complete weapon. That work could be done in a small workshop anywhere in a country half the size of Europe, he said. To emphasize the improbability of such an effort being discovered through espionage, Netanyahu noted that Iran had operated a gigantic, underground enrichment plant for two years before outside intelligence agencies knew anything about it.
To fuel a bomb, Iran would have to produce a sufficient amount of highly enriched uranium. Based on public reports of progress on that front by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Netanyahu estimated that Iran would have enough bomb-grade uranium for one weapon around the middle of next year. If a red line were set before that stage, he argued, Iran would likely respect it, just as it had backed down earlier this year from threats to block the Strait of Hormuz.
Of course, the nuclear program is far more important to Iran than was its threat to block the strait. Still, by shining a light on the limitations of what we can know about Iran's program once it has acquired bomb-grade uranium, Netanyahu added an important dimension to the debate about what to do about it.
(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)
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