UNITED NATIONS -– Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the United Nations that Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb will be irreversible by next spring or summer, a more specific time frame than he has publicly argued before, and demanded that world powers draw a “red line” to trigger military action if Tehran refuses to stop before then.
Holding up a crude cartoon drawing of a bomb with a burning fuse, Netanyahu told the General Assembly that at its current rate, he believes Iran will have produced enough sufficiently enriched uranium by mid-2013 that it could turn its attention to building an actual weapon within “a few months, possibly a few weeks.”
He did not threaten to attack Iran, however, and said he was still working with the Obama administration to find a way to curb Iran’s nuclear development without war. He emphasized Israel’s close ties to the United States in what appeared to be an attempt to ease public concern of a rift between the two allies over the immediacy of the nuclear threat.
In his 30-minute address, Netanyahu drew a bright red line through the cartoon bomb to make his point that unless the world stops Iran, it will become an existential threat to Israel and a terrorist threat to the entire world, comparing a nuclear-armed Iran to a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda.
“The relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb,” he said. “It is at what stage we can stop Iran from getting the bomb.”
Iran insists it is enriching uranium for civilian purposes, such as power generation, as is its right under international agreements, and that it is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu has pushed the Obama administration for months to declare a “red line,” or ultimatum, beyond which Iran cannot go or risk attack. He has not previously given as specific a deadline for action, although he has implied that the decision must be made before Iran has enough fissile material for a bomb.
“I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down,” he said.
President Obama, who spoke on the same podium Tuesday, repeated his assertion that the United States will not allow Iran to build a bomb, but he did not specify how far it could go. He said a combination of international diplomacy and punitive economic sanctions will persuade Tehran to abandon the nuclear program, but said the time is not “unlimited.”
Netanyahu’s comments did not persuade the White House to change tactics. A senior official, asked whether the Obama administration found Netanyahu’s argument convincing, said the president had “already laid out our policy” that the U.S. red line is possession of a bomb.
U.S. military and intelligence officials say they believe they will have advance warning of any decision by Iranian leaders to build a bomb. Tehran would need to reconfigure the centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium to a higher degree of purity, and would need to expel U.N. nuclear inspectors to complete the work.
At that point, their intentions would be clear, and they would be vulnerable to an air attack by the United States and its allies. On its own, Israel’s military probably doesn’t have the capacity to destroy Iran’s various nuclear facilities.
Netanyahu is “drawing the red line at a very early point that won’t be convincing to the United States or much of the international community,” said Cliff Kupchan, a Mideast specialist at the Eurasia Group consulting firm.
Netanyahu may believe that if he cannot persuade the world powers to set a firm red line, he can help build pressure in Congress and elsewhere to tighten sanctions so far that Iran faces a near-total trade embargo. At the moment, neither the Obama administration nor European powers support that approach.
Netanyahu drew a dire portrait of the Iranian threat, saying that it represented a “medieval” approach in a battle against modernity, and linked it to radical Islam that he said wanted to destroy not only Israel, but Europe and the United States.
He outlined the recent history of Iran’s activities and said that “given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons," the Israeli prime minister said. "Who among you would feel safe in the Middle East? Who would be safe in Europe? Who would be safe in America? Who would be safe anywhere?”
Insisting that red lines “prevent war,” he said NATO’s clear warnings to adversaries had prevented war for a half century, and speculated that clearer red lines to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the 1930s might have prevented World War II.
-- Paul Richter in New York
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows a red line he drew on a graphic of a bomb during his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday in New York City. Credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images