Apocalyptic Talk Aside, Israel Has Dialed Down Its Threat to Bomb Iran — for Now

Netanyahu says at present rates of enrichment, Iran's nuclear program will cross Israel's red line for military action next spring or summer

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Mario Tama / Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, points to a red line he drew on a graphic of a bomb while addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 27, 2012 in New York City

Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his U.N. speech on Sept. 27, referring to the question of Iran’s nuclear program, to which he devoted almost all of his remarks. The Prime Minister broke from his recent habit of tacitly, but obviously, criticizing President Barack Obama‘s handling of Iran by hailing his achievements in putting together the most comprehensive sanctions package ever faced by any nation. Netanyahu also emphasized that the two governments are working together in pursuit of the common objective of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, a message the White House was happy to affirm via National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, who said the U.S. and Israel “will continue our close consultation and cooperation toward achieving that [shared] goal.”

Although Netanyahu also maintained that sanctions have failed to stop Iran’s program and that time was running out, the Israeli leader has clearly dialed things down from his previous habit of presenting Obama — to the delight of the campaign of Mitt Romney — as naive and feckless in the face of a grave and gathering danger. Netanyahu may have, at one point, hoped to pressure Obama into taking a tougher stand, but the White House resisted Israeli demands that it more clearly draw “red lines” on Iran. Netanyahu found himself increasingly isolated at home in his threat to take unilateral military action and was sharply criticized even by Israeli President Shimon Peres for appearing to interfere in U.S. electoral politics. Other Israeli commentators were blunter, warning that Netanyahu was recklessly gambling on a Romney victory, which appeared, they said, increasingly unlikely.

(MORE: At the U.N., Netanyahu Sides with Obama on Iran)

The Israeli leader’s General Assembly speech was an odd mixture, not only because of the bizarre, cartoonish bomb graphic he used to depict Iran’s nuclear progress, which left confusion as to just where, in real terms, he was drawing his own red line. The need to set red lines that would trigger a military response if crossed was the main focus of his speech, just as it had been the focus of his campaign to pressure the Obama Administration in recent months. Sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy, he noted, but haven’t stopped its nuclear program. He repeated familiar rhetoric at the U.N., portraying Iran’s leadership as an apocalyptic, suicidal cult akin to al-Qaeda that welcomed death and its own destruction in order to usher in a messianic era. His point, of course, was that Iran could not be contained by the self-preservation logic that governed the behavior of Cold War–era Marxist regimes. (He even thanked Obama for rejecting “containment” in his Sept. 25 U.N. speech, pocketing what was essentially a concession to the Israeli view and making it clear that he intends to hold the Obama Administration to it.) But those alarmist portrayals of Iran are largely intended for a U.S. political audience because they’re not taken any more seriously by the international community than are Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s portrayals of Israel and the U.S. And Israel’s own, officially unacknowledged nuclear-weapons capability, generally believed to be substantial, has not escaped the notice of the rest of the world. Comparing a threat from Iran today to that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s rings a little hollow when considering Israel’s overwhelming military superiority in the region; even the airpower of the Gulf monarchies would easily overwhelm Iran’s archaic air force.

Netanyahu, in fact, inadvertently presented something of a conceptual contradiction on how to deal with Iran. After providing a history of how setting firm red lines had ostensibly deterred the Soviets, and even claiming that a U.S. statement of a red line had persuaded Iran to retreat from threats to closing the straight of Hormuz earlier this year, Netanyahu insisted that Iran would back down from uranium enrichment if “faced with a clear red line,” thereby “giving more time for sanctions and diplomacy to persuade it to dismantle its nuclear program.” But to argue that Iran would back down if faced with a credible military threat requires believing that the decisionmakers in Tehran are, in fact, rational actors who prioritize self-preservation — the very assumption that underpins a containment principle. After all, suicidal, apocalyptic jihadists are hardly going to be deterred from pursuing their goals by red-line threats.

(MORE: How Netanyahu Learned to Trust Obama)

As to where the red line would be set, there was further confusion resulting from his Wile E. Coyote–style bomb graphic that some read as implying that enrichment above 90% ought to be a red line. The graphic may have been intended to suggest that a stockpile of enough 20%-enriched uranium that could be reprocessed into weapons-grade material would, in fact, take Iran 90% of the distance to achieving a bomb. The Obama Administration, which has set its own red line at Iran’s “obtaining” a nuclear weapon, is unlikely to concur that a stockpile of medium-enriched uranium sufficient for reprocessing into a single bomb’s material constitutes obtaining a nuclear weapon. But even if they don’t agree on where to draw the line, the takeaway from Netanyahu’s speech was his warning that at present rates of enrichment, “Iran’s ability to make a bomb would be irreversible by next spring or summer.” Translation: Israel is not going to bomb Iran before the November U.S. election, but it will start the familiar saber-rattling cycle again soon after the results are announced.

Obama has successfully warded off Israeli pressure to set a red line, of course, but a diplomatic breakthrough remains elusive. After the election, he, or a President Romney, will have to consider whether to escalate the pressure or try a new, more direct diplomatic tack with Iran. And there’s no doubt which option the Israelis will be lobbying for.

MORE: Red Lines, Deadlines and End Games: Netanyahu Turns Up Iran Heat on Obama