Bibi's Subtext: Israel Won't Bomb Iran Before Spring


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:

So what are we to make of this? On the one hand, his language--"before" completion of stage two--is vague enough to permit bombing, like, now, since now is before completion of stage two. Yet he makes a point of drawing the line at the very, very, very, very end of stage two.

I think there's only one plausible interpretation. He is saying to Iran: If you amass enough 20 percent enriched uranium for a bomb, you will have crossed the red line. But he is also saying--mainly to the rest of the world--that so long as Iran doesn't have that much 20 percent enriched uranium, it won't have crossed the red line. That's why he so painstakingly leaves zero white space between the red line and the black line: to have crossed the red line, Iran must have completed stage 2.

So when could Iran cross this red line? Listen to something else Netanyahu said: "Now they're well into the second stage. And by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage." So even by Netanyahu's estimation, which generally tends toward the alarmist, Iran won't get to the red line before spring.

God knows I have in the past been critical of President Obama's handling of the Iran issue. But I think today's Netanyahu speech has to be counted as an Obama success. A few weeks ago, Netanyahu was implicitly threatening to bomb Iran any moment and trying to get the U.S. to make its declared policy on Iran more hawkish. Now Netanyahu has backed down from his threat, and Obama didn't have to change U.S. policy in order to get that result. What's more, if Obama is re-elected, he now has at least a few months to impart momentum to negotiations with Iran without fearing that Netanyahu will start acting hysterical in the meanwhile. (Granted, with Netanyahu you never know, but now that we have a picture of that red line, for him to start freaking out again while Iran is clearly shy of it would destroy what credibility he has left.)

Obviously, the chances of an attack on Iran before Spring, even before the end of this year, are above zero. Unexpected things can happen, internal politics can shift radically within Israel or Iran, and even accidents can start wars. But, barring something weird--even weirder than Netanyahu's Warner Brothers visual aid--Israel won't be attacking Iran this year, or for that matter in January or February of next year.

[Update, 9/27, 10:15 p.m. I hadn't previously seen this piece by Laura Rozen in which she writes that today's speech by Netanyahu seemed to "allow for several more months to pursue international diplomatic efforts to try to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program before Israel would feel compelled to resort to force." The entire article is well worth reading, as is this assessment of the Netanyahu speech by Daryl Kimball, Greg Thielmann, Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association. Finally, I can't resist noting that Netanyahu's speech today is consistent, to say the least, with my earlier contention that his saber-rattling of some weeks ago was a bluff.]