- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
During his speech at the U.N. General Assembly this afternoon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu busted out a diagram of a cartoonish bomb and a red marker to indicate where he would draw a red line for taking preemptive military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. He argued that his red line would come before the third stage in acquiring a nuclear weapon: Iran enriching enough high-enriched uranium to build a bomb (according to Netanyahu, Iran is currently "well into" the second stage, and will complete this phase — and, by extension, trigger Netanyahu’s red line — by next spring or summer "at most"):
Where should a red line be drawn? 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’s a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.
Whatever analysts may think about the wisdom of using such rudimentary props for such a grave topic, Netanyahu’s words are still significant because the Israeli prime minister has avoided defining his red line with such specificity in the past. When NBC’s David Gregory asked Netanyahu about his red line during a recent appearance on Meet the Press, for example, Netanyahu mentioned acting "before they get nuclear weapons" but then resorted to football-inspired platitudes. "They are in the red zone," he explained. "You know, they are in the last 20 yards. And you can’t let them cross that goal line. You can’t let them score a touchdown."
Unless you interpret Barack Obama’s pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon rather liberally, the position Netanyahu staked out today appears to be at odds with the president’s. Netanyahu is saying that Iran’s capacity to develop a nuclear weapon in short order is unacceptable — a stance Mitt Romney recently embraced as well (after claiming that his red line was the same as Obama’s, only for the campaign to walk the statement back). But Romney hasn’t offered details about where along Iran’s spectrum of nuclear development he would draw his red line (an advisor told the New York Times that the candidate "would not be content with an Iran one screwdriver’s turn away from a nuclear weapon"). Netanyahu, it seems, wants to intervene well before Iran’s nuclear scientists reach for the screwdriver.
In the days and weeks ahead, the indelible image of Netanyahu drawing a thick red line on his crude diagram could compel Romney to offer more specifics about his red line, and Obama to explain how and why his stance differs from the Israeli prime minister’s, if at all.
Here’s the key clip from Netanyahu’s speech, via BuzzFeed: