Israeli Leader Sharpens Call on U.S. to Set Limits on Iran
By DAVID E. SANGER and ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: September 11, 2012
WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy issue of the American presidential campaign on Tuesday, criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to set clear “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike. As a result, he said, the administration had no “moral right” to restrain Israel from taking military action of its own.
Mr. Netanyahu’s unusually harsh public comments about Israel’s most important ally, which closely track what he has reportedly said in vivid terms to American officials visiting Jerusalem, laid bare the tension between him and President Obama over how to handle Iran. They also suggested that Mr. Netanyahu is willing to use the pressure of the presidential election to try to force Mr. Obama to commit to attack Iran under certain conditions.
In another sign of tensions in the American-Israeli relationship, a senior Israeli official said late Tuesday that the Obama administration had declined a request from Mr. Netanyahu’s office for a meeting with Mr. Obama when the Israeli leader visits the United States this month to attend the United Nations General Assembly. The Obama administration confirmed that no meeting would occur, but attributed it to a scheduling problem and said the decision not to meet was conveyed to Israel weeks ago.
The United States says that it has no evidence that Iranian leaders have made a political decision to build a bomb. Most American intelligence reports suggest the country is amassing a stockpile of enriched uranium that could be used as fuel for a weapon. Those reports say Iran suspended its nuclear weapons development program at the end of 2003. The Israelis say Iran is quietly reconstituting its effort, and must be stopped.
In demanding that Mr. Obama effectively issue an ultimatum to Iran, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to be making maximum use of his political leverage at a time when Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has sought to make an issue of what he says is the administration’s lack of support for Israel.
It is not clear what level of development in Iran’s nuclear program would constitute a “red line” in Israeli eyes. But Mr. Netanyahu has unsuccessfully pressed Mr. Obama to declare that if Iran goes beyond a certain point in its enrichment of uranium, the United States would strike the country or join Israel in a strike.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly rejected that approach over the weekend, avoiding discussion of “red lines” for Iran and adding “we’re not setting deadlines” beyond which the United States would turn to a military solution.
It appeared to be Mrs. Clinton’s statement that set Mr. Netanyahu off. “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said in Jerusalem at a joint news conference with the prime minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly argued — with the support of some leading Israeli officials — that the United States and Israel have closer security cooperation now than at any point in history. The United States provided much of the “Iron Dome” missile defense system for Israel, and for the past five years the two countries worked closely on a major covert operation against Iran called “Olympic Games,” an effort to sabotage Iran’s enrichment capability with cyber attacks.
But Mr. Obama has declined to announce how far he would permit Iran to go in developing the capability to produce a bomb. He has said only that he would not allow Iran to obtain a weapon; Mr. Netanyahu has said that is not enough.
Depending on how one defines the term, Mr. Obama’s aides and former aides acknowledge that Iran may already have that capability. It possesses the fuel and the knowledge to manufacture a weapon, but it would take months or years to do that, and Mr. Obama has argued that means “time and space” exist for a negotiated solution.
Mr. Netanyahu, who is highly attuned to American politics, seemed to be using his comments to pressure Mr. Obama to specify at one point it would be prepared to take military action against Iran, perhaps later this month at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, which both two leaders will attend. The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, echoed Mr. Netanyahu in an interview in Washington on Monday night and said that the Israeli leadership wants Mr. Obama and the leaders of other nations to agree on clear “red lines” for Iran. “We know that the Iranians see red,” Mr. Oren said. “We know they can discern the color red. We know that the redder the line, the lesser the chance that they will pass it.”
Mr. Romney had no immediate comment about Mr. Netanyahu’s challenge to Mr. Obama, and one of his informal advisers on the Middle East said, “It’s probably better at this point to let Netanyahu make the point, because it’s more powerful that way.” The adviser said he was not authorized to speak on the record.
But the Netanyahu comments play right to the Republican nominee’s critique of Mr. Obama. On Sunday, appearing on “Meet the Press,” Mr. Romney declared that the progress Iran has made in its nuclear program was Mr. Obama’s “greatest failure” in foreign policy.
“The president hasn’t drawn us any further away from a nuclear Iran,” he said.
There is little doubt that the Iranian effort has progressed. When Mr. Obama took office, Iran had produced sufficient fuel to make about one bomb, with further enrichment. Today it has enough for between five and six weapons, a calculation based on the latest inventory of low- and medium-enriched uranium published by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But Mr. Romney’s proposed solutions also have delicately steered clear of the explicit “red lines” that Mr. Netanyahu insisted upon on Tuesday. Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney has not said how much progress he would allow Iran to make toward a weapons capability before he authorized a strike.
Instead, he has insisted that Mr. Obama was late to the task of placing “crippling sanctions” on Iran. Yet those sanctions have begun to strike at the heart of Iran’s greatest source of national revenue — oil sales — something that the Bush administration shied away from.
Mr. Netanyahu has been dismissive of sanctions. They are an indirect form of pressure, he has argued, and have not forced Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to scale back the country’s nuclear program.
In recent days the Israelis had appeared to be dialing down the pressure on Washington, with the Israeli press reporting that Ehud Barak, the defense minister, was rethinking the wisdom of an attack in coming months. There was speculation that Israeli officials feared the long term jeopardy to Israel’s relationship with Washington was not worth the short-term gain of setting back, but likely not destroying, Iran’s capability.
A number of American officials, in trips to Israel, have argued than an Israeli attack would only drive the nuclear program underground, but likely result in the expulsion of international inspectors, who are the best gauge of the program’s progress.
But Mr. Netanyahu revived the tough talk of the last few months and the message that time is running out for Israel.
“So far we can say with certainty that diplomacy and sanctions haven’t worked. The sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy, but they haven’t stopped the Iranian nuclear program,” Mr. Netanyahu said, adding, “The fact is that every day that passes, Iran gets closer and closer to nuclear bombs.”
Israel has not publicly specified what the red lines should be, and there may not be one single view on that point.
Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a research institute, and a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview last week that “It is very important to draw a line about the quantities of enriched uranium and the levels of enrichment.”