A number of people, including my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, have noted that Bibi Netanyahu's speech before the United Nations today was weird. What they mean is that he pulled out a chart featuring a cartoonish image of a bomb and then drew a red line on it--kind of like the "red line" he's been demanding that President Obama draw, except more literal.
Yes, that part was weird, and the title of Goldberg's post--"Bibi: The Middle East's Wile E. Coyote"--was deserved. So were such entertaining Photoshop riffs as the one below (taken from the Israeli website 972).
Still, none of this should obscure the upshot of Netanyahu's talk: Without quite saying so, he has now backed off of the limb he had gotten himself out on. Whereas only weeks ago he was suggesting that Israel might bomb Iran before he finished his next sentence, the upshot of today's speech was that Israel won't bomb Iran before spring.
At least, that's the only plausible interpretation of the speech that I can find. But reaching this conclusion requires disambiguating what was in some ways a confusing presentation. Here goes:
If you look at the photos of Netanyahu's red line, such as the one above, it seems to be right along the border between the second and third stages in what he sees as Iran's determined march toward a nuclear weapon. So, for starters, what are those stages?
Being in stage 2--where Iran is now--means enriching uranium to the 20 percent level. Should Iran amass enough 20 percent enriched uranium for a bomb, then it would (assuming it indeed wants a bomb) move to stage 3, where it would start enriching this uranium to a higher, weapons-grade level. (For present purposes you should ignore the percentages on Bibi's cartoon graph, because they don't refer to level of enrichment, but rather to his estimate of how far toward having a bomb Iran is at various stages. Also, for Netanyahu to label stage 3 the "final stage" is misleading, but I won't get into that now.)
So, at first glance, the location of the red line suggests that Iran can keep enriching uranium to 20 percent, even amassing enough 20 percent uranium for a bomb, so long as it doesn't cross the line and start enriching that uranium further, to weapons grade. (Weapons grade, as it happens, is around 90 percent enrichment--but, again, that's not what the 90 percent on Bibi's graph refers to.)
OK, fine, that seems pretty clear and simple: Iran shouldn't be allowed to cross the line between stages two and three--i.e., shouldn't start enriching uranium to 90 percent. But now listen to what Bibi said: "A red line should be drawn right here, before, before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb." So now he's saying that the red line isn't at the border between stages 2 and 3 but rather somewhere before that? Then why didn't he draw the red line before that?
Well, he kind of did. If you look really closely as he draws the line, you see that, though some of the red ink does cross the black line between stages two and three, he is actually trying to draw the red line immediately below the black line. And when I say immediately below I mean immediately below. He wants the red line below the black line yet touching it. Watch: