Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb as he addresses the UN General Assembly in New York, Sept. 27.

Benjamin Netanyahu: 'Iran will back down' if red lines are drawn

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, put the world on notice during his UN speech about his 'duty' to act 'before it's too late' to protect his country.

Having failed to get from President Obama a public declaration of “red lines” for Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the United Nations stage to set his own such lines Thursday – declaring that Iran’s uranium enrichment program must be stopped before it amasses enough material to build a nuclear bomb.

“Faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down,” Mr. Netanyahu said, concluding a technical yet at times almost folksy explanation of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear progress. He said that “at most by next summer” an unrestrained Iran will have the stockpile of medium-enriched uranium it would need to quickly build a nuclear weapon.

That timetable leaves little opportunity for sanctions and stalled international talks to resolve the crisis diplomatically. But it also suggests that Israel is not on the verge of launching airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities – perhaps even before US elections in November – as some Middle East experts have speculated.

Netanyahu’s call for red lines was not a surprise. But he placed Iran’s nuclear threat in a broader context of what he said is the global struggle between forces of progress and darkness.

“Today, a great battle is being waged between the modern and the medieval,” he said, with the forces of “intolerant and extremist Islam” arrayed against the tolerant and freedom-loving world.

The protagonists of this new “medievalism,” Netanyahu said, were led by a country, Iran, and an organization, Al Qaeda. A world that can easily fathom the unacceptability of nuclear weapons in Al Qaeda’s hands, he said, should consider Iran an equal threat.

“It makes little difference if these arms are in the hands of the most dangerous terrorist regime or the most dangerous terrorist organization,” he said.

Netanyahu mixed his dark and alarmist tone with some familiar touches of the tried politician he is, at one point pulling out a prop – a simple diagram with a big round bomb topped by a lighted fuse to demonstrate Iran’s progress in stockpiling enriched uranium. He even pulled out a felt pen to draw a sharp red line across the bomb and illustrate his point.

Although he put the world on notice about his “duty” to act “before it’s too late” to protect his country, Netanyahu also highlighted Israel’s cooperation with the United States in confronting Iran and praised Mr. Obama for his categorical refusal of a nuclear Iran from the UN stage this week.

Netanyahu said he appreciated Obama’s declaration that “the threat of a nuclear Iran cannot be contained” and that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable.

The Israeli leader had sought a commitment from Obama to set down red lines for Iran, to let it know the point at which continued progress in its nuclear program would trigger US military action. But Obama refused to go along, saying instead that, while the US will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, he also believes there is still “time and space” for sanctions to constrain Iran.

Obama will speak with Netanyahu by phone Friday, the White House said Thursday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was scheduled to hold a one-on-one meeting with the Israeli leader in New York Thursday evening.

In his UN remarks, Netanyahu confirmed that Israel is in substantive discussions with the US on the Iranian issue, and he said he is “confident” the two countries will “go forward in a common position.” He said that is something Republicans and Democrats alike can support – a comment that seemed designed to address the concerns of some Israelis and American Jews who have openly worried that Netanyahu is injecting himself into the US presidential campaign.

Some Israeli officials suggested in the run-up to Netanyahu’s speech that discussions between the two countries are reducing differences over how to approach Iran. 

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Israel Radio Thursday that Obama's statements on Iran at the UN were "important, albeit measured,” and he added that the two governments were nearing an accord on setting limits for Iran. His comments were closely watched because Mr. Ayalon is the ministry official charged with the Iran portfolio. 

Netanyahu’s stark picture of the threat Iran poses – and the failure of sanctions and diplomacy to contain it – was not the only position coming out of Israel. Even as Netanyahu sounded his tough tone, a leaked Israeli Foreign Ministry document suggested that international sanctions on Iran are having a greater impact than anticipated – and could result in an antigovernment uprising that topples the regime.

The report, which recommends an additional round of international sanctions as a path to dissuading Iran, provided an awkward counterpoint to Netanyahu’s insistence that only a credible threat of military action can dissuade Iran from its current nuclear path.

Israeli officials traveling with Netanyahu acknowledge that the sanctions are having an impact, but they reiterate the prime minister’s conviction that sanctions won’t derail Iran’s enrichment program in time to stop it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

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