Netanyahu's simple bomb graphic confuses the nuclear experts

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu sought to simplify the Iranian nuclear issue with the diagram he brought out on the UN podium, but experts say he actually made it more confusing.

Richard Drew/AP
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel shows an illustration as he describes his concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions during his address to the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on Thursday, Sept. 27.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stole the spotlight at the United Nations General Assembly yesterday when he pulled out a comic book-like diagram of a bomb midway through his podium address, figuratively drawing the red line on the Iranian nuclear program that he has demanded from the US.

For months, Mr. Netanyahu has been calling on the US to specify a point in Iran's nuclear development that, if crossed, would trigger military intervention. The US has steadfastly refused to commit itself to a specific point, prompting the Israeli leader to take his case to the international community. 

While his presentation certainly got attention, some experts say that Netanyahu’s prop missed the mark, confusing where his red line lies rather than simplifying the issue. The problem, they said, is that his presentation conflated two different types of numbers.

The bomb chart showed percentage progress toward acquiring enough fissile material to make a bomb. Netanyahu said the Iranians were 70 percent of the way there and drew his now famous red line at the 90-percent threshold, a milestone he predicted would be reached sometimes next spring or summer.  

But in his remarks, he spoke of the need to draw that red line between the production stage of enriching uranium to medium level purity – 20 percent, according to experts – and the stage of uranium enrichment for weapons-grade purity, which is 90 percent.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said that the red line refers to "90 percent upon the path to weapons grade enrichment." Amos Harel, a military commentator for the liberal Haaretz who also noted the confusion among commentators, wrote that it refers to the amount of 20 percent enriched material required to begin high level enrichment.

"It's not clear if he’s saying that Iran can’t have a certain amount of medium-enriched uranium, or he doesn’t want Iran to have 90 percent enrichment grade fuel," says Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Where he drew the line was the wrong place. You want to stop them at 20 percent.  You don’t want to let them get to weapons grade."

Dramatic flair

Netanyahu has used stage props to dramatize before. In an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he pulled out images of letters to the White House calling for attacks against Nazi Germany to stop the extermination of European Jews during World War II to assert a similarity between that period in history and his efforts to stop Iran.

He also gave President Obama a copy of the Jewish text the Book of Esther, which chronicles a thwarted effort to wipe out Persia's Jewish population a couple millennia ago, during a visit in March. His aides said it was meant as "background reading" on Iran.

But the bomb chart triggered a much bigger splash. Netanyahu’s supporters in Israel praised his performance. "The whole world now understands how dangerous a nuclear Iran is," said Ofir Akunis, a parliament member from the prime minister’s Likud party, according to the Times of Israel

Observers noted that intentional or not, the stir caused by the diagram completely overshadowed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's speech that day, in which, among other criticism, he charged Israel with ethnic cleansing. 

Meanwhile, Netanyahu's critics ridiculed him for the gimmick, unleashing a flood of satirical riffs, from inserting images of Looney Toons cartoons into photos of Netanyahu on the UN podium (his bomb diagram was compared to that of cartoon villain Wile E. Coyote) to an image of Bob Dylan from his 1960s video Subterranean Homesick Blues, holding the chart.

"Despite all the mocking of various individuals of little faith, the image of the Israeli prime minister and the bomb will be broadcast in every news edition around the world, and will be incorporated in the video clips made by the Republican Party for the presidential campaign," wrote Nahum Barnea in Yediot Ahronot. "There is nothing like a bombshell to spice things up. ‎The technical details will not particularly trouble those who view the image."

Did Netanyahu actually hurt his case?

Israeli Iran experts also took issue with Netanyahu’s specification of next spring and summer as the ultimate deadline to stop Iran.

Some said that the speech implies that Israel will attack next summer if the US doesn’t act. They also noted that Israeli experts have been warning since the 1990s about deadlines of 3 to 5 years for Iran’s nuclear program.

"Timelines are very problematic. So many factors can intervene and slow down the progress" toward a bomb, says Emily Landau, a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for International Security Studies. "It's hard to make predictions about when they will get to whatever stage. That is always precarious." 

Netanyahu asserted that it will be hard for Western monitors and intelligence agencies to detect when Iran actually crosses the line, but Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Iran analyst, says it will be easy because the decision to begin high-level enrichment would actually trigger a red flag to inspectors. 

And even though Netanyahu’s red line suggested that that stage would put the Iranians at the threshold of a nuclear weapon, experts say it would still take more time to build a detonators and produce enough bombs to test such a weapon.

“It’s confusing to people who don’t deal with this every day. They could end of thinking that Iran is a red marker away from a bomb, but that’s not entirely true,” says Javedanfar, suggesting the chart was misleading.

"There’s a world of difference between having enough 20 percent enriched uranium and breaking out from the 20 percent to make higher levels of enrichment to make a bomb," he says. "I think people think this will be an easy decision to make, it won’t. It will be one of the most monumental decisions the [Iranian] regime can make."

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