Bibi’s red line raises more questions than it answers

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toned down his ultimatums to President Barack Obama and focused on Iran, displaying a crude drawing of a bomb to dramatize his concerns about Iran’s growing stockpile of enriched uranium in a speech to the United Nations Thursday.

“So how much enriched uranium do you need for a bomb, and how close is Iran to getting it?” Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly Thursday, pulling out a cartoonish drawing of a round bomb with a fuse. “This is a bomb. … In the case of Iran’s nuclear plans to build a bomb, this bomb has to be filled with enough enriched uranium.”

Iran is “70 percent of the way there,” the MIT-educated Israeli leader continued. “And 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.”

Still, that timetable seemed to allow for several more months to pursue international diplomatic efforts to try to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program before Israel would feel compelled to resort to force. And Netanyahu Thursday expressed new confidence that the Israeli and American administrations would be able to reconcile their different timetables on how long there is to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

“Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together,” Netanyahu told the world body.

“The two sides, the Israelis and the Americans, are trying very hard to narrow differences between the two of them,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor. The Israelis “feel comfortable that they are succeeding.”

As to what accounts for Netanyahu having toned down his camp’s recent rhetoric about the urgency of the Iran threat, analysts cited several factors. Key among them, the Israelis reading US polls showing the growing likelihood that Obama will be re-elected to a second term as US president.

“All of the above, plus, the Israelis realize that fighting with the Americans is only to the Iranians’ benefit,” Clawson said. “That’s a big part of the dynamic.”

Netanyahu’s UN speech “took the Obama dimension out of it,” David Makovsky, an Israel analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday. “He put the focus where it should be: on Iran’s program and not on President Obama…He was able to sharpen the focus on the red line without sharpening focus on the United States.”

Netanyahu “said for the first time…that they are now in talks  with the United States on this issue, which was accurate,” said Makovsky, who recently co-wrote, with Clawson, a paper on bridging the US-Israeli gap to prevent Iran nuclear breakout.

Regarding Netanyahu’s cartoon-ish bomb diagram, “his point is, once you get a full bomb’s worth of 20% enriched uranium, then it is an easy dash to weapons grade,” Makovsky said.

But Avner Cohen, an expert on the Israeli nuclear program, told Al-Monitor that Netanyahu “undermined his own argument” about the urgency of the Iranian threat by drawing a red line so close to 90 percent enriched uranium.

“Right now, the Iranians have no interest to cross beyond 20 percent,” Cohen said. “So why did he give them leeway to go almost all the way to 90 percent? It’s logically very strange.”

Netanyahu’s “aim was not to score a technical point, rather he is pushing the debate towards the normalization of the idea of war,” Trita Parsi, author of a book on Obama’s Iran diplomacy, A Single Role of the Dice, told Al-Monitor.

“Clearly, he couldn’t care less if his theatrics were technically correct or not,” Parsi said. “He knows very well that the average American …is more likely to be convinced by his cartoon presentation than by analytically rigorous breakdowns of his position and claims.”

Separately, Netanyahu met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for 75 minutes Thursday evening. He will also speak by phone with President Obama on Friday, the White House said Thursday.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also met Thursday with Clinton and foreign ministers from the P5+1 group negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Ashton briefed the group on a “constructive” four hour dinner meeting she held with chief Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Istanbul last week.

“We discussed at length the need for Iran to take action, urgently, as we considered the Iranian nuclear issue,” Ashton said following the P5+1 meeting in New York Thursday.I will, from that meeting, now be in touch with Iran again to continue this process.”

A senior US official told journalists that the United States expected another P5+1 meeting with Iran to be scheduled in the not too distant future.

“At some point, I’m sure there will be” another meeting, the senior State Department official said Thursday. “I think we’ve got …some additional work to do first, so I would not expect that to happen immediately.  But I would hope that we will get there in the not-too-distant future.”

–Barbara Slavin, Al-Monitor’s Washington correspondent, contributed reporting. 

(Photo: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he drew on the graphic of a bomb used to represent Iran’s nuclear program as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 27, 2012. The red line represents a point where he believes the international community should tell Iran that they will not be allowed to pass without intervention. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.)