While most media attention focused on the cartoon bomb presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, something even more newsworthy passed almost without notice: Netanyahu made it clear that he has endorsed U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy on Iran. By literally drawing a red line to show how far he could tolerate Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu in effect approved of the international efforts led by the Obama administration to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In fact, while he would never admit it in the midst of a campaign, even Mitt Romney picked up on this view and has, in practice, endorsed Obama’s approach. That sudden outbreak of unspoken consensus is the real story of the last week of diplomacy. The real question now is, what can be done with the broad agreement that there is both time and space for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program that has created a new window of opportunity? And that depends on two big wildcards: what Netanyahu’s red lines really are, and Iran’s real intentions and capabilities.
In Netanyahu’s speech, he made it clear that Israel has a red line for the Iranian nuclear program. While this red line for military action has evolved over the years, it now appears to be the point at which Iran has enough low enriched uranium — at nearly 20 percent enrichment levels — to potentially produce one nuclear bomb. In Netanyahu’s estimation, that time won’t come until sometime next year, perhaps in the spring or even the summer. If Iran were to achieve that level, it would be threatening enough for Israel to justify striking Iran, according to Netanyahu.
The prime minister identified this as his red line because it would be the furthest point at which Israel could feasibly attack Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.
As the prime minister said:
“The relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb. The red line must be drawn on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target.”
Israel, according to nearly three-dozen bipartisan national security leaders who signed onto a report by the Iran Project, doesn’t have the capacity to conclusively destroy Iran’s nuclear program. However, it does have the capacity to delay it through bombing enrichment facilities. But that would be a disaster, as it would likely unravel the international pressure on Iran to come clean, unleash a devastating war in the region, fuel antagonism toward the United States and fail to permanently end the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Yet if past is prologue, Israel tends to strike its adversaries’ nuclear facilities when it feels vulnerable, not when the international community deems it wise. Israel struck the nuclear facilities at Osirak in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 — but only made limited strikes. In the case of Iraq, the attack drove the program underground and accelerated its push for nuclear weapons — an outcome that Israel would not want today in Iran.
In this case, by appearing to set a red line Netanyahu actually gave a boost to the role of serious U.S. diplomacy to resolve this issue. This is because of what Netanyahu didn’t say in his speech: that any Iranian nuclear program is unacceptable. This little-noticed absence gives a crucial boost to the prospects for a nuclear deal. He only said that Iran should not be allowed to enrich enough uranium to have the makings of a bomb. By implication, this means that — with strict safeguards, commitments to cap enrichment levels, and export or conversion of uranium for reactor fuel plates — Israel could live with an Iranian nuclear program. This is where the international negotiations, led by the Obama administration, have been heading. And now Netanyahu has publicly signed off on this approach.
Of course, Iran has a role to play, and could continue to keep Israel and the international community on the edge of their seats by proceeding to raise and lower the levels of its stockpile as it sees fit. This is because it takes roughly 225 kg of nearly 20 percent enriched uranium to make one bomb’s worth of fissile material — although that material would still need to be purified up to 90 percent levels. It’s important to remember that, according to the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, Iran recently reduced its stockpile of 20 percent uranium to less than half of that red line, from 101 kg to 91 kg, by converting a portion of the stockpile into fuel plates for use at the Tehran Research Reactor.
But there are severe downsides for Iran to continue to play such games, as the devastating sanctions currently in place will remain. Iran, which needs to get out from under international pressure and isolation, should seize the opportunity to credibly deal at the negotiating table with the United States and its international partners. There is no guarantee that it will do so, but the time will soon come when it must show its cards.
Now that the speeches are over and the threat of immediate war has receded, the real work of diplomacy must step in to resolve this dispute. It’s clear from Netanyahu’s speech last week that a diplomatic deal that allows for some type of Iranian nuclear program is in the cards. It’s also clear that Israel depends on the sanctions that the Obama administration has orchestrated, on the information gathered by IAEA inspectors about Iran’s nuclear program and on the multilateral negotiations underway.
So all eyes are on Washington to guide the diplomacy to resolve this sticky situation without a war. Backing up the support for diplomacy is the fact that the American people oppose getting involved in another war of choice in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the United States and Israel may still decide that they, in fact, have no choice. Yet one thing is certain from last week: U.S. leadership in the Middle East is neither diminished nor irrelevant. If anything, it is clear that it is working, and that it will be counted-on even more in the days to come.
This piece was originally posted on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel.
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