Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drawn his “red line” for Iran’s nuclear programme – the point at which Iran has amassed nearly enough highly enriched uranium for a single atomic bomb.
Addressing the United National General Assembly yesterday, he appeared to pull back from any threat of an imminent Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, saying the Islamic Republic would be on the brink of producing an atomic weapon only next summer.
He added he was confident the United States and Israel, which have disagreed about the urgency of military action, could devise a common strategy to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat, citing Iranian denials of the Holocaust, its calls for Israel’s destruction, its development of missiles capable of striking the Jewish state and its support for hostile Arab militant groups.
Holding up a cartoon-like drawing of a bomb with a fuse, Mr Netanyahu literally drew a red line on a bomb, just below a label reading “final stage”, where it was 90 per cent along the path of having sufficient weapons-grade material.
“A red line should be drawn right here, before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb, before Iran gets to a point where it is a few months or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon,” he said.
“Each day, that point is getting closer, and that is why I speak today with such a sense of urgency and that is why everyone should have a sense of urgency.
“The red line must be drawn on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme 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. And this will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme all together.”
Mr Netanyahu was referring to Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent purity, a level it says is required for medical isotopes but which also brings it close to bomb-fuel grade.
An August report by UN inspectors said Iran had stockpiled 91.4 kg of the 20 per cent material. According to the UN nuclear watchdog, about 25 kg of uranium enriched to a 90 per cent purity level would be needed for a single nuclear weapon.
Israel, thought to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence and has expressed frustration over the failure of diplomacy and sanctions to rein in Tehran’s nuclear activity. Iran says it is enriching uranium only for peaceful energy purposes, not for nuclear bombs.
American officials believe Iran has not yet made a final decision to take the plunge, even as it develops much of the infrastructure needed to do so.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he will not allow Iran to gain nuclear weapons and that the US would be prepared to use force as a last resort.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said this week he did not take seriously the threat that Israel could launch a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Speaking shortly before Mr Netanyahu, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of ethnic cleansing over its building of settlements in east Jerusalem. “It is a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people via the demolition of their homes,” Mr Abbas told the UN General Assembly.
In response, Mr Netanyahu said: “We won’t solve our conflict with libellous speeches at the UN.”
Mr Abbas also said he had opened talks on a new bid for international recognition at the UN but didn’t specify when he will ask the General Assembly to vote. “Intensive consultations with the various regional organisations and the state members were under way,” he said.