Did Obama Best Bibi's Own Red Line?

It would be hard to imagine after the gnashing of teeth from Prime Minister Netanyahu, but the interim agreement with Iran is good news for Israel and the world - even by Bibi's own measure.

Graham Allison
Graham Allison
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Graham Allison
Graham Allison

Amidst the weeping and gnashing of teeth from the Prime Minister’s office after the interim agreement on Iran reached in Geneva, it is appropriate to pause to ask how President Obama’s interim agreement actually measures up on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s chosen yardstick.

Who can forget Netanyahu’s UN presentation last year where he made his best case to the world about the threat Iran’s nuclear program poses to international security. To vivify this danger, Bibi unveiled a graphic sketch of a bomb on which he demonstrably drew a red line.

As he explained in his UN speech then: “In the case of Iran’s nuclear plans to build a bomb, this bomb has to be filled with enough enriched uranium. And Iran has to go through three stages. The first stage: they have to enrich enough of low enriched uranium. The second stage: they have to enrich enough medium enriched uranium. And the third stage and final stage: They have to enrich enough high enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

Having set the stage, he then asked, “Where’s Iran?” As he answered: “Iran’s completed the first stage. It took them many years, but they completed it and they’re 70% of the way there. Now they are well into the second stage.” He then vowed that Iran would never be allowed to cross his red line to the third stage. “The red line must be drawn on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program,” he argued, “because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target. I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down.”

Especially in Israel, the Prime Minister’s speech drew withering fire. Many criticized his drawing a red line in this way as a fool’s errand. Nonetheless, he never retreated from his view that “Red lines prevent war. Look at NATO’s charter: It made clear that an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on all. NATO’s red line helped keep the peace in Europe for nearly half a century.”

As Graph 2 (below) illustrates, after the Prime Minister’s warning, the curve tracking the Iranian stockpile of 20% enriched uranium has crept up toward, but stayed unambiguously below the line the Prime Minister drew. While Iran’s centrifuges have produced more than enough 20% enriched uranium for almost two bombs, the additional production has been converted to oxide to fabricate fuel for Iran’s research reactor. Had it not been, Iran would have crossed from stage 2 to the final stage and have enough material for its first bomb. Instead, while within reach of the 250 kilograms required (after further enrichment for a bomb), Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium has never exceeded 200 kilograms.

Using the metric the Prime Minister himself selected, what will President Obama’s interim agreement achieve? One element of the agreement requires Iran to halt all enrichment of uranium to the 20% level. A second forces it to eliminate its 200 kilo stockpile of 20% enriched uranium. At the end of the six-month period, if the agreement is successfully implemented, Iran will have zero kilograms of 20% enriched uranium.

As Graph 3 (above) shows, Obama’s black line bests Bibi’s red line. It pushes Iran back from the line Netanyahu drew, where Iran stood on the threshold of completion of stage 2, 90% of the way to the UEU core of a bomb, to Netanyahu’s stage 1.

As a result, on the path the Prime Minister identified as Iran’s fastest track to a nuclear bomb, the Geneva agreement has extended the dash time – the period between any decision by Iran to rush to a bomb and the goal line. Thus, when judged by this bottom line, Obama’s interim agreement leaves Israel and the world safer than we would otherwise be.

Harvard University Professor Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School.

How does Obama's interim deal measure on Netanyahu's yardstick?Credit: Graham Allison/Reuters

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