Netanyahu softens tone toward United States
UNITED NATIONS — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel told the United Nations on Thursday that Iran's capability to enrich uranium must be stopped before next spring or early summer, arguing that by that time the country will be in a position to make a short, perhaps undetectable, sprint to manufacture its first nuclear weapon.
In his speech at the annual General Assembly, Netanyahu dramatically illustrated his intention to shut down Iran's nuclear program by drawing a red line through a cartoonish diagram of a bomb. But the substance of his speech suggested a softening of what had been a difficult dispute with the Obama administration on how to confront Iran over its nuclear program.
Only two weeks after that dispute broke into the open, Netanyahu on Thursday praised the warning that President Barack Obama gave Iran in his own General Assembly speech on Tuesday.
''I very much appreciate the president's position, as does everyone in my country," he said.
The Israeli leader's speech also suggested that his deadline for a military strike was well past the U.S. presidential election and into 2013 — perhaps as late as next summer.
Netanyahu said in an interview on "Meet the Press" on NBC that was broadcast Sept. 16 that he believed Iran was six months from amassing most of the enriched uranium needed for a bomb.
''You have to place that red line before them now," he said.
But his General Assembly speech was more explicit about his time frame for a military strike.
While such a strike seemed like a receding possibility in recent weeks, it had remained a possible "October surprise" that worried the White House and military planners.
Netanyahu's softened tone may also have also reflected Israel's reading of the U.S. presidential polls, which have shown Obama's lead widening somewhat since the prime minister's harsh words in mid-September, when he said the United States had no "moral right" to hold back Israel from taking action against Iran because the Obama administration refused to set a red line of its own.
''It seems that Netanyahu's Iran policy is becoming more Obama-friendly," Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya, Israel, said in an emailed reaction to Netanyahu's speech.
''What was most impressive was that he drew a red line, without committing himself to it," Javedanfar said. "He also did it in a way which takes the pressure off Obama, illustrated by the fact that he pushed back the timelines to next year."
Michael Herzog, a former chief of staff to Israel's defense minister and an Israel-based fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was implicit in Netanyahu's remarks that "there are six or seven months more to continue to pressure the Iranians. The international buzz before was that Israel had to act before the November elections."
Netanyahu's speech also came against a backdrop of revived international diplomacy with Iran, which has insisted its nuclear program is peaceful. Foreign ministers from the P5-plus-1 group of countries — the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany — met to discuss how to advance negotiations with Iran that have been stalled since June.
''All of the ministers were unified in their belief that diplomacy is the much preferred way forward," a senior Obama administration official said after the meeting.
A new report by Israel's Foreign Ministry calls for another round of sanctions against Iran, seemingly another acknowledgement by the Israelis that there might be time to stop its rival's nuclear program by means other than military action.
The report, published Thursday by the newspaper Haaretz, states that the international sanctions already imposed are having a deep effect on Iran's economy, and may, according to some assessments, also be affecting the stability of the Iranian government. But because the sanctions have not persuaded Tehran to suspend the program, the report concludes, "another round of sanctions is needed."
Much of Netanyahu's speech was devoted to what he described as the existential and increasingly ominous threat that would be posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, which he equated to a nuclear-armed al-Qaida. He portrayed a Middle East increasingly in the hands of Islamic radicals, many threatening Israel's existence.
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But it was his description of Iran's nuclear progress that was at the heart of his speech.
Perhaps mindful of the experience of former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who laid out an ultimately flawed case against Iraq nine years ago, Netanyahu revealed no new intelligence — he just urged his audience to do some math based on the public findings of inspectors.
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With an almost professorial air, Netanyahu held up a diagram of a bomb with a fuse to show the Israeli view of Iran's progress in achieving the capability to make a nuclear weapon. He drew a red line through the point at which Iran would have amassed enough medium-enriched uranium to make a bomb — which he said would be in the spring or summer of 2013.
His calculus turned on a stockpile of medium enriched uranium — uranium enriched to the level of 20 percent — that Iran has produced, ostensibly to fuel a research reactor, provided to the country by the United States in the days of the shah. Right now, Iran does not possess enough of that fuel to make a single weapon. In fact, its stockpile of it has declined in recent months, as it has converted some for the research reactor.
But based on current production rates, Netanyahu said it would have enough in its stockpile by the middle of next year, a conclusion shared by many nuclear experts who have examined the reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Obama administration does not dispute Netanyahu's math but does challenge his logic. Its officials, in background conversations, have insisted that if Iran wanted to convert its uranium to bomb-grade fuel, which is much higher purity than 20 percent, it would have to throw out the nuclear inspectors and take steps that would be easily detectable.
''We'd almost certainly see it," one of Obama's top advisers said two weeks ago.
Netanyahu challenged that assessment in his speech, asserting that the actual assembly of a bomb could be done clandestinely anywhere in Iran.
"Do we want to risk the security of the world on the assumption that we would find in time a small workshop in a country half the size of Europe?" he asked.
In response to Netanyahu's speech, Iran again denied what it called "baseless and absurd allegations" that it is seeking a nuclear weapon and insisted the goals of its nuclear program are "exclusively peaceful."
But Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declined to rule out the possibility that Iran would continue producing 20 percent uranium, even though it has now made enough to keep its medical reactor running for the next six to 10 years. And in its statement Thursday night Iran reserved its "full right to retaliate with force against any attacks."
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Netanyahu also used his speech as a rejoinder to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who earlier had harshly denounced Israel from the General Assembly podium with a litany of grievances.
Abbas said he believed that Israel intended to destroy the basis for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He also declared his intention to pursue full-member status at the U.N. as an alternative path to statehood, an effort begun last year that has faltered because of Israeli and U.S. objections.