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Israeli PM addresses Iran nukes at U.N. Thursday
Posted 9/27/2012 8:05 AM ET

UNITED NATIONS -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that nothing could imperil the world more than a nuclear armed Iran.

Speaking before the General Assembly of the United Nations, the prime minister once again warned of the dangers posed if Iran goes nuclear and described for the first time where he would draw a "red line" for Iran's nuclear program -- at a point before Iran reaches the final stage of uranium enrichment to build a bomb.

Using a large, cartoonish diagram of a round bomb and fuse, Netanyahu said the line "should be drawn right here, before Iran completes the enrichment process, before Iran is a few months or a few weeks away from amassing enough highly enriched uranium to build a weapon."

While Israel and other Western nations have superb intelligence services, they are not fool proof, he said, and may not be able to stop Iran's progress toward obtaining weapons if it completes the enrichment process, which takes places in large industrial complexes that can house thousands of centrifuges. Work on a detonator for a nuclear weapon, on the other hand, can be hidden in a small workshop, he said.

"For more than two years we didn't know Iran was building an enrichment plant under a mountain" at Fordo, he said. "Do we want to risk not being able to find a small workshop in a country half the size of Europe?"

"The red line must be drawn on Iran's nuclear enrichment program because these facilities are the only nuclear installations we can see and and target," Netanyahu said. "And I believe, faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down."

Netanyahu has repeatedly argued that time is quickly running out to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and that the threat of force must be seriously considered.

"We (the U.S. and Israel) share the goal of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program," he told the world body. "Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue and I am confident we can find a way forward together."

Netanyahu's message on Iran was much more urgent than President Obama's message when Obama spoke to the General Assembly on Tuesday.

Obama expended all of two paragraphs on Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

The difference illustrates the gulf that has developed between the two leaders of nations that for decades have worked arm in arm on intelligence and security issues in the Middle East, sharing hardware, technology and an approach to common threats, said Aaron David Miller, an advisor to U.S. secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations from 1978 to 2003.

The tone of Netanyahu's speech and whether Israel strikes Iran in the next few months, against U.S. wishes, could impact the future of U.S.-Israeli relations, said Jon Alterman, a former U.S. diplomat now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And that "could be more important for Israel's security than the question of whether Iran has a nuclear weapon," Alterman added.

Despite recent statements by U.S. Ambassador for the U.N., Susan Rice, that there is "no daylight" between American and Israeli policy on Iran, "this is the most dysfunctional relationship between an Israeli prime minister and American president I've ever seen," Miller said.

The two men share little trust, he added.

"Obama looks at Bibi (Netanyahu) as if he's a conman who doesn't think about anything but his political needs ... and is not serious about the peace process" with the Palestinians, Miller said. "And Bibi thinks Obama is rudderless about the Middle East" and too cautious.

Netanyahu, who views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat for Israel, has urged the U.S. president to describe clear "red lines" for Iran's nuclear program that could trigger a military attack. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded that the U.S. will not set "deadlines" for Iran.

Seeking reelection, and coming from an anti-war background, "this president does not want to use miliary action, not now, not before the end of the year, nor after," Miller said.

Netanyahu sought a meeting with Obama in New York during the General Assembly gathering, but the White House said Obama, who was in New York earlier in the week, could not fit another New York visit into his schedule.

Obama said Tuesday that while "time is not unlimited," there is still time for sanctions to pressure Iran to abandon a nuclear program that Israel and the U.S. believe is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Iran has said its program is for peaceful means.

"A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained," Obama said. And the United States "will do what we must" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Yet Miller believes Obama's policy is in fact one of containment.

"He's not trying to prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon," Miller said. "If he were, he'd be giving Israel the hardware they would need, or at least the assurances that they'll get the hardware."

Iran's nuclear program has continued to move ahead. It has doubled its capacity to produce 20% enriched uranium over the summer, according to the latest reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Netanyahu wants the United States to state at what point it would consider the Iranian program a threat that must be stopped, Alterman said. Yet Netanyahu has not provided such a clear statement for Israel.

"So he's asking for an American red line without providing an Israeli red line," Alterman said.

There's much more uncertainty about what Israel might do and the consequences of an Israeli strike, he added..

Alterman, like many experts and U.S. military leaders, doubts that Israel could set Iran's program back more than a year or two. A strike, Alterman said, could result in increased attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, disruption to the world's oil supply and damage to the already fragile global economy. It also could draw the United States into a conflict it's trying to avoid.

And it could be counter-productive, Alterman said.

"The U.S. says Iran hasn't reached the point where they could race toward the bomb and an Israeli strike could precipitate that decision," Alterman said. "It might make it come faster rather than delay it."

Netanyahu needs to consider the consequences for Israel if Israel defies U.S. wishes, Alterman said.

David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Israel would be able to "back off" its push for an American commitment on Iran if Israel and the U.S. could reach an understanding on what progress in the Iranian program would trigger an American response.

Both allies should accept a little humility, he said.

"When there's a war of words between the United States and Israel, the only side that wins is Iran," Makovsky said.

On the other hand, the U.S. was unable to stop North Korea and Pakistan from developing nuclear arms, so "it's not a given that the United States will be successful against Iran," he added.

David Albright, an arms control expert at the Institute for Science and International Security, said Iran could launch an effort to make enough weapons grade uranium for a bomb at its Natanz facility right now. But that would take two to four months and be "extremely detectible" and therefore susceptible to being stopped by Israel or the U.S., he said.

What's more likely, and what Netanyahu has been talking about, Albright said, is for Iran to reach the same capacity at Fordo, Iran's deeply buried enrichment facility, which Israel can shut down but cannot destroy.

Construction and centrifuge installation at Fordo will be complete in two months, and Iran could have enough 20% enriched uranium there by early-to-mid 2013, he said, adding "at that point, they'd be two months from making weapons grade uranium for one bomb."

That too would be noticeable to observers, but Israel does not have the capacity to destroy Fordo, while the United State does, Albright said.

"We can destroy a lot more than they can, that's what makes the Israelis nervous because they like to do it on their own and don't like to depend on us," he said. "The U.S. can deter Iran from breaking out -- Obama knows that -- and Israel can't. That's part of the problem and it's a risk to them (Israel)."



Posted 9/27/2012 8:05 AM ET
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows an illustration as he describes his concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions during a speech Thursday at the United Nations.
Seth Wenig, AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows an illustration as he describes his concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions during a speech Thursday at the United Nations.