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As for sanctions, Netanyahu said they had “had an effect. Oil exports have been curbed and the Iranian economy has been hit hard. It’s had an effect on the economy, but we must face the truth. Sanctions have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program either.”
As he noted: “According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, during the last year alone, Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges in its underground nuclear facility in Qom.”
That left one thing, Netanyahu said, that could stop the mullahs’ march to nukes: “a clear red line.”
Such a red line, he averred, had proved effective when President Kennedy had drawn one during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and could have proved effective against the Nazis if the Western powers had troubled to draw one during the 1930s. But what, in the case of Iran’s nuclear program, would constitute a red line?
It could not be, Netanyahu asserted, the production of a nuclear detonator—something that, in a vast country like Iran, could be achieved in a workshop the size of a classroom, beyond intelligence agencies’ power to detect. Instead, “a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program: on Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.”
But hasn’t Iran already enriched a lot of uranium, directly flouting the now more-or-less forgotten 2006 UN Security Council Resolution that treated uranium enrichment itself as a red line?
Netanyahu, of course, acknowledged that Iran had already progressed far down the uranium-enrichment road—and used a diagram to clarify where things stand today. The basic message he conveyed with the diagram: Iran has already produced enough low-enriched uranium; it is already “well into the second stage” of producing medium-enriched uranium, beyond which lies only a third stage of having enough high-enriched uranium for the first bomb; and Iran has to be stopped—the red line has to be drawn—at the completion of that second stage of medium enrichment.
When would Iran be completing that stage? It would be, Netanyahu said, “by next spring, at most by next summer.”
Three things should be pointed out here.
First, by treating a certain stage of enrichment as the red line rather than the actual construction of a bomb, Netanyahu appears to be amplifying a known disagreement with the Obama administration, which has claimed that intelligence would be able to detect a final sprint to the bomb so that military forces could stop it in time—a position with which Israel has strenuously disagreed.
Second, in positing a quite-high level of uranium enrichment as the red line and next spring or summer as the end point, Netanyahu appears to be significantly moderating the message he and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been conveying since late 2011, which has often made an Israeli attack sound imminent and the existing situation sound nearly if not actually intolerable. Netanyahu appears thereby to be lessening Israeli pressure and allowing more time to iron out differences, and adopt a joint approach, with the U.S. administration.
But, third, the question that remains is: what happens if (as seems likely if not predictable) Netanyahu’s demand for a red line is not fulfilled by Washington? Netanyahu’s speech on Thursday could, in other words, be viewed as either a last warning before an Israeli attack or—by leaving the red-line demand as another ongoing talking point, but not a real ultimatum—a way to back off from one.
Which of those the speech actually was, only time will tell.
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