As Iranian Leader Woos the World, Netanyahu's Red Line Fades to Black

Israeli officials concerned that Netanyahu’s scornful attitude to Rohani could harm efforts to influence negotiations with Iran.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

A year after his melodramatic speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York regarding Iran’s nuclear bomb, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns there next week, facing the possibility that recent changes in Teheran’s nuclear program have made the red line he drew then less relevant.

Netanyahu’s red line focused on the uranium enriched to a level of 20 percent that Iran possessed, much of it enriched at an underground facility in Fordo. The Iranians have made great efforts to remain below the 250 kilogram threshold of 20 percent enriched uranium, after Netanyahu threatened military action if that line was crossed.

At first Netanyahu’s red line was a success story. The Iranians slowed their pace of enriching uranium to 20 percent and increased the conversion rate of this type of uranium into nuclear fuel. Iran today has 170 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent. In recent months, however, the Iranians have found a way to circumvent Netanyahu’s red line.

By increasing the number of centrifuges and installing a thousand new advanced ones, the Iranians can now increase the pace of their uranium enrichment by four or even five times. This new technology allows the Iranians to skip the intermediate step of enrichment to 20% and to enrich uranium directly and rapidly from a low level of 3.5 percent to 90 percent, which is weapon-grade level. It’s not for nothing that the Iranians have been hinting that they’re willing to be flexible regarding their 20 percent enrichment and about dismantling the facility at Fordo.

It is not just technology that has blurred Netanyahu’s red line, but international politics as well. Hassan Rohani’s victory in Iran’s presidential elections in June with 51 percent of the vote surprised not only the western powers, but also Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Netanyahu himself.

Since Rohani assumed the presidency, there have been a series of changes. He appointed the relatively moderate Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister and transferred the authority for nuclear talks with the world powers to the Foreign Ministry, which is directly subordinate to him. He also called on the Revolutionary Guards to stay out of politics and released several dozen opposition activists from prison.

Teheran’s tone has also changed. Rosh Hashana greetings tweeted by both Rohani and Zarif and the repudiation of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial are just part of the new Iranian rhetoric. After that, came Rohani’s wave of interviews with the international media, which included conciliatory statements about Iran's willingness to be flexible about resolving the crisis over the nuclear program.

The international sanctions on Iran are proving more stressful to Rohani than the West and Jerusalem had believed during his election campaign. In recent weeks, he’s been signaling in all sorts of ways that he wants to reach a deal with the West that would remove the sanctions so he could rehabilitate the collapsing Iranian economy. At this point, Rohani is being publicly backed by both Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.

Washington and the European capitals are welcoming this new tone with great enthusiasm. The West also wants to reach a deal with the Iranians. But despite the enthusiasm, the West is not naïve. Senior Israeli officials in talks with the Americans, Germans, British and French in recent weeks have made it clear to all that Israel has not changed its tough stance on Iran and that Rohani will ultimately be judged solely on his actions.

Netanyahu fully understands that his red line is gradually dissipating. He fears a deal between Iran and the great powers that Israel will be unable to prevent or influence. Netanyahu’s associates say that a bad deal between Iran and the West would be far worse for Israel than no deal at all. His meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama next Monday, a day before he addresses the General Assembly again, will deal primarily with this issue.

Netanyahu's response at this point has not been particularly sophisticated. He has hardened his positions and is making maximalist and unrealistic demands. Last year’s “red line” speech will be replaced this year by a speech specifying his four conditions. He will demand that Iran stop all uranium enrichment activities of any kind; close the facility at Fordo and dismantle the advanced centrifuges at Natanz; remove all enriched uranium – even that enriched at a low level – to outside the country; and shut down the Arak heavy water reactor, at which the Iranians are allegedly developing a way to produce plutonium-based nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu chose to reveal excerpts from his planned UN speech in an article in The New York Times on Monday. Ironically, the newspaper that Netanyahu had previously described as one of Israel’s most dangerous enemies has become his mouthpiece when it comes to Israel's foreign policy.

Israeli officials who were quoted anonymously in the Times said that Netanyahu will warn the international community that a deal with Iran on its nuclear program could be a trap, similar to the one set by North Korea in the negotiations that country conducted eight years ago.

“Iran must not be allowed to repeat North Korea’s ploy to get nuclear weapons,” an Israeli official told the Times.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is having difficulty dealing with the proactive media behavior of Rohani and Zarif. He is totally scornful and negative regarding the new voices emerging from Iran. While the West is responding positively to the Iranians’ new tone, Netanyahu claims it is one big fraud.

Some senior Israeli officials who are involved with the Iranian issue agree that Netanyahu has gone overboard with his statements condemning Rohani, turning himself and Israel into a “spoilsport” in the eyes of the international community.

“Netanyahu’s message on Iran is unrefined, arouses opposition and most importantly, is not especially convincing,” a senior Israeli official said. “Netanyahu's approach could harm Israel's ability to influence the position of the world powers as they negotiate with Iran.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb at the UN General Assembly in September 2012.Credit: Reuters

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