When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a red line for the UN General Assembly in his Sept. 27 speech, using a large red marker across a poster board diagram, he highlighted his policy disagreement with the Obama administration but also threw down a challenge to nuclear scientists: Was it true that Iran could enrich enough uranium to produce a bomb by mid-2013? Increasing numbers of experts say it likely is.
Netanyahu drew headlines for holding up a cartoonish diagram of a round bomb with a lit fuse during his speech before the roomful of diplomats. The bomb’s size corresponded to how much uranium Iran would need to enrich to build a nuclear weapon. So far, Netanyahu said, Iran has enriched 70 percent of the uranium it needs, and will have reached 90 percent by next spring or summer.
“From there, it’s only a few months—possibly a few weeks—before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb,” the Israeli prime minister said. “Each day, that point is getting closer. That’s why I speak today with such a sense of urgency.”
With a large red marker, the prime minister drew a line across the upper portion of the bomb, explaining that Iran shouldn’t be allowed to amass 90 percent of the necessary uranium. The line also represented his policy dispute with the Obama administration: President Obama has publicly committed to stopping Iran from constructing a nuclear weapon, but not to halting the country’s enrichment program. Netanyahu argues that if Iran is allowed to enrich the necessary uranium, it could finish building a weapon undetected by U.S. and Israeli intelligence.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, says it’s true that Iran could possess the bulk of the necessary uranium by spring 2013. Nuclear facilities in Iran have produced about 100 kilograms of the type of medium-grade uranium needed for a weapon, and continue to enrich about 15 kilograms per month. (Developing a single bomb requires 200 to 250 kilograms.) Albright says Iran has no practical need for medium-grade uranium: “But they keep making it.”
Tehran claims its enrichment program is for peaceful purposes, but the country’s defiance of UN oversight makes Israel and other Western nations necessarily suspicious.
The latest UN International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran, released Aug. 30, announced the country had added over 1,000 centrifuges to its underground Fordow facility and continues to block agency inspectors from visiting certain nuclear sites. Satellite images show extensive construction activity at an explosives testing site where Iran hasn’t allowed inspectors.
Due to Iran’s lack of cooperation, the report concluded, the UN is “unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, [or] to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is [for] peaceful activities.”
Netanyahu doesn’t believe Iran has peaceful intentions: Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” and just ahead of the UN General Assembly’s opening in September told reporters Israel has no roots in the Middle East and would be “eliminated.”
Netanyahu wants Iran’s nuclear program stopped before it’s too late, but he needs the backing of the United States for a preemptive air strike to be successful. Only the United States has the bunker-buster bombs needed to disrupt enrichment activity at Iran’s underground Fordow plant. Netanyahu is using his public appearances to put pressure on Obama—but in diplomatic tones, in case Obama is still in the White House when the red line is reached.