NEW YORK - Israel doesn't intend to launch a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities in the next few months, judging by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday.
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But military action can only be postponed for so long, he warned: In just six to nine months, Iran will be on the brink of acquiring a nuclear weapon. Therefore, the world must draw a clear "red line" to prevent it from reaching this point.
To the astonishment of the assembled diplomats, Netanyahu underscored his point by brandishing a cartoon-like drawing of a bomb with a fuse that showed Iran's progress toward nuclear weapons. The drawing divided this progress into three stages: producing enough low-enriched uranium for a bomb, if further refined to a 90-percent enrichment level; producing enough medium-enriched uranium for the same; and producing enough high-enriched uranium to actually build a bomb.
"Iran's completed the first stage ... and they're 70 percent of the way there," he said. "Now they are well into the second stage. By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage.
"From there, it's only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb."
He then slashed his own red line across the diagram, just before the end of the second stage. "The red line should be drawn right here," he stressed. "Before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb. Before Iran gets to a point where it's a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon."
"I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down," he added. "This will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program altogether."
Netanyahu delivered the speech shortly before a scheduled late-night meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On Friday he is expected to hold a telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama - their second in two weeks.
Netanyahu refrained from attacking Obama in his speech, and even praised him for mobilizing the world to impose sanctions on Iran. He also said that Israel and the United States were working together on the Iranian issue.
But he made it clear that by "red line," he meant an explicit threat of military action: "The red line must be drawn on Iran's nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target," he said, noting that production of other components for a nuclear bomb could be easily hidden.
To prove that such a red line could be effective, he cited Iran's threat to close the Straits of Hormuz in response to sanctions: "The United States drew a clear red line and Iran backed off."
He also argued that setting such a red line offered the only hope of stopping Iran's nuclear program without military action. "Red lines don't lead to war; red lines prevent war," Netanyahu said, adding that throughout history, "it's the failure to place red lines that has often invited aggression."
Explaining why the line needed to be set "before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment," rather than when it was almost at the finish line, he argued that there's no guarantee the world would detect a final sprint to the bomb in time.
Some people "claim that even if Iran completes the enrichment process, even if it crosses that red line that I just drew, our intelligence agencies will know when and where Iran will make the fuse, assemble the bomb, and prepare the warhead," he said. But while "all these leading intelligence agencies are superb, including ours ... they are not foolproof."
Netanyahu also drew a comparison between Iran and Nazi Germany, noting that the world would have been better off had the Nazis been stopped earlier. The question, he said, is "not whether this fanaticism will be defeated. It's how many lives will be lost before it's defeated..."
"Some 70 years ago, the world saw another fanatic ideology bent on world conquest. It went down in flames. But not before it took millions of people with it ... My friends, we cannot let that happen again."
"At stake is not merely the future of my own country. At stake is the future of the world."
He also rejected the idea that a nuclear Iran could be contained, and ridiculed "the absurd notion that a nuclear-armed Iran would actually stabilize the Middle East."
Given Iran's record of aggression without nuclear weapons, he said, "just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons ... 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?"
With Iran as his main focus, Netanyahu devoted scant attention to the Palestinian issue compared with last year. But that issue didn't seem to preoccupy other delegates, either: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who spoke before Netanyahu, did so to a half-empty hall.