Analysis |

Netanyahu's Red Line and Its Real Meaning

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

1. The chatter over the data

On a normal day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – Mr. PR does everything he can to simplify and clarify the Iranian threat, as he should, but in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly he did the reverse. It is likely that most viewers will mostly only remember the cartoon-like illustration of the Iranian bomb that Netanyahu pulled out mid-speech. But what he said has apparently caused much confusion even among some commentators. From a number of articles published on Friday morning, it seems as if Netanyahu was placing the Israeli red line at the point where Tehran will have enriched uranium to 90 percent (in fact, a level of 93 percent).

Presumably this is not what Netanyahu meant. Ninety-three percent enrichment is a level sufficient for producing a nuclear weapon, which is, in any case, a red line for the entire international community (certainly where Western powers are concerned) because it constitutes a threshold ability to quickly produce a nuclear explosive device. If that is what Netanyahu meant, it is a relatively soft stance from the Israeli point of view.

The 90 percent that Netanyahu was talking of is a red line representing quantity not purity: meaning obtaining 90 percent of the amount required to produce a nuclear weapon (approx. a quarter of a ton). Keep in mind that Netanyahu is still talking about uranium enriched to 20 percent purity (the peak level reached by Iran to date), from which it will be possible to later produce a nuclear bomb, after it is further enriched. This, says Netanyahu, is a threshold that is unacceptable to Israel. Iran is expected to pass this threshold next summer, if it isn't stopped.  

Even when Netanyahu referred to 70 percent, in the now-famous cartoon, he is not talking of enrichment levels (I am not aware of any discussion on uranium enriched to this level that is at all relevant), but to the amount of material that the Iranians currently have in their hands, out of the quantity of enriched uranium needed to finally produce a bomb.

Moreover, the prime minister was not referring at all to the stage after Iran gets its hands on the required amount. Even if Iran enriches uranium to a higher level, it will still take Tehran time to adapt a bomb so that it can be squeezed into a nuclear warhead installed in a ballistic missile. Various estimates put this period at between six months to two years.

2. The timetable

With all the focus on illustration, another important aspect was overlooked. Netanyahu has virtually eliminated any talk of an Israeli attack on Iran before the U.S. elections on November 6. In practice, the prime minister has postponed the debate on Israeli action until the period between spring and summer next year.

This is a temporary achievement for U.S. President Barack Obama, who can apparently stop worrying that an early Israeli strike on Iran will disrupt his reelection campaign. But Netanyahu does not completely illuminate any discussion of an attack, rather it is only being postponed. The Israeli threat to take action against Iran alone, if the need arises, remains on the table. Possibly, even more so, now that it was made by the prime minister on the UN stage.

3. Relations with the United States

In his speech to the UN, Netanyahu paid some lip service to American actions already taken against Iran, when he praised the efforts being made by the Obama administration. But with the same breath he, however, reiterated his position that sanctions leveled against Iran by the international community have not prevented Iran from advancing toward a nuclear bomb. When Netanyahu praises Obama, it seems like he is not doing it with the same degree of conviction as that used recently by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Jewish-American lobby AIPAC, which published ads praising Obama's contribution to Israel's security. And yet, this is not the language used with reference to the White House by those close to Netanyahu in recent weeks.    

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu illustrating the 'red line' for Iran’s nuclear capacity, at the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 27, 2012.Credit: Reuters