September 28, 2012 in Nation/World

Netanyahu draws line over Iran

Israeli says progress on nukes could soon be unstoppable
Paul Richter McClatchy-Tribune
Associated Press photo

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows an illustration as he describes his concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions during his address at U.N. headquarters Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

UNITED NATIONS – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the United Nations that Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb would be irreversible by next spring or summer, a more specific time frame than he had previously given in public, and demanded that world powers draw a “red line” to trigger military action if Tehran refuses to stop before then.

Holding up a crude drawing of a round 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 to allow it to start working on an atomic 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 curb Tehran’s nuclear development without going to war.

He emphasized Israel’s close ties to the United States, in what appeared an attempt to ease concern about a rift between the allies over Iran’s potential nuclear threat, even as he increased public pressure on Washington for a stepped-up effort.

In his 30-minute address, Netanyahu drew a bright red line through the drawing of the bomb to make his point that unless the world stopped it, Iran would become an existential threat to Israel and a terrorist threat to the world. He compared a nuclear-armed Iran to a nuclear-armed al-Qaida.

“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.”

Netanyahu’s warning came as the six world powers that have tried to negotiate limits on Iran’s nuclear program conferred on the sidelines of the U.N. meeting. Three meetings between those nations and Iranian negotiators this year failed to produce a breakthrough, but U.S. officials said progress was possible.

“We have some reason to believe the talks with Iran will move to a point of seriousness,” said a senior State Department official, declining to provide details.

Asked for their reaction to Netanyahu’s speech, the official said the six countries – the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany – agreed that “diplomacy is the preferred path.”

Iran says it is enriching uranium for energy generation and other peaceful uses and is not seeking to build a weapon. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who addressed the General Assembly on Wednesday, said this week that his country did not rule out a negotiated solution to the standoff.

Netanyahu has pushed the White House for months to declare a “red line” beyond which Iran would risk military attack. He has not previously given as specific a deadline, 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.

Analysts say his prediction appears to be based on calculations by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran will have enough nuclear material for one bomb next year if it continues enriching uranium at the current rate.

When President Barack Obama addressed the General Assembly on Tuesday, he repeated his position that the United States would not allow Iran to build a bomb, but he did not specify how far it could go. He said he hoped diplomacy and punitive economic sanctions would persuade Tehran to abandon its efforts, but warned that time was not “unlimited.”

U.S. officials argue that setting a deadline or specifying what Iranian nuclear activity would trigger a U.S. attack would limit presidential options and could lead to an unnecessary war. Netanyahu’s warning Thursday did not persuade the White House to change its view.

U.S. military and intelligence officials say they believe they will have some warning of any decision by Iranian leaders to build a bomb. Tehran would need to reconfigure its fast-spinning centrifuges to obtain the higher enrichment of uranium needed for a nuclear bomb, and it presumably would expel U.N. nuclear inspectors who regularly visit the facilities.

At that point, Iran’s intentions would be clear, and the production plants would be vulnerable to airstrikes 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, especially since some of them have been moved deep underground.

Some Israeli officials have argued that a quick strike now would damage the program enough to buy more time for diplomacy. U.S. officials fear that could spark a new Middle East war. But Israeli officials are far from united.

An Israeli government report says existing measures have had an effect in Iran, a less-pessimistic take on the results of U.S.-led sanctions.

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 be trying to build pressure in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere to impose sanctions so tight that Iran faces a near-total trade embargo. At the moment, neither the Obama administration nor European powers support that approach.

Some advocates of tough action against Iran, including those in Congress and in Israel, are pushing for a new round of U.S. and European sanctions that would move toward a full trade embargo.

But it is unclear whether such a proposal could win the blessing of the Obama administration and all of the 27 states of the European Union.

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