BICOM Analysis: Netanyahu’s red line strategy


Key points

  • By defining a clear red line for Iran’s nuclear programme, Netanyahu is clarifying the circumstances under which he would take military action, but also making clear to Iran and the international community how it can avoid that eventuality.
  • Netanyahu has drawn his red line at the point before Iran has enough medium enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon if further enriched, which he expects to be reached next spring or summer. According to the last IAEA report in August 2012, Iran had around 90 kg of the approximately 225 kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium required for one bomb, and was producing about 15 kg a month.
  • Netanyahu is increasing pressure on the international community to resolve the issue through sanctions and diplomacy, whilst also giving Iran a potential route out of the crisis by stopping its production of 20 per cent enriched uranium, shipping it out of Iran, or converting it to fuel for non-military uses.

What did Netanyahu say?

In his UN speech, Netanyahu defined what he sees as the red line the world needs to set for Iran’s nuclear programme. Netanyahu demonstrated this visually, drawing a red line on a picture of a bomb representing Iran’s nuclear programme. He drew the line at the point before Iran completes the second stage of its enrichment, i.e. the stockpiling of enough medium enriched uranium to make the high enriched uranium for a bomb if further enriched. Because enriching uranium becomes progressively easier the further you go, enriching up to 20 per cent (medium enriched uranium) is most of the work towards weapons grade uranium, which is enriched to 90 per cent. According to Netanyahu’s assessment, the red line will be reached next spring or summer at current rates of enrichment. Once Iran crosses that line, it could further enrich the uranium to make weapons grade fuel in a matter of weeks.

Netanyahu argued that the key factor is the enrichment of uranium, ‘because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target.’ He said that intelligence could not necessarily detect the construction of a nuclear weapon once Iran has acquired sufficient uranium. This, he argued, is because a trigger or nuclear warhead could be constructed in a small workshop, which would be hard to find in Iran, which is half the size of Europe.

Netanyahu’s said that defining the red line was the best way to resolve the issue without resort to military action. He cited examples of red lines which had preserved peace in the past, namely the NATO’s charter which made clear that an attack on one is an attack on all, and President Kennedy’s ultimatum to the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He cited the rise of Nazism as an example where the failure of the international community to set red lines meant that they failed to react soon enough to prevent catastrophe.

In other passages Netanyahu criticised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech, made a few minutes earlier, saying, ‘we won’t solve our conflict with libellous speeches at the UN or unilateral declarations of statehood.’ Netanyahu reiterated his desire for peace reached through negotiations to create a demilitarised Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state of Israel.

Netanyahu also spoke at length about the historic Jewish connection to the land of Israel and the Jewish contribution to the world in ethics and in modern science and technology. He also articulated a vision for the Middle East in which people representing ‘three great religions’, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam could coexist.

What are the implications?

Netanyahu has been trying in recent weeks, without success, to press the Obama administration to define a red line on Iran. Now he has taken matters into his own hands and defined the red line for himself. He has thereby set a timer on international efforts to stop Iran getting a bomb though sanctions and diplomacy. By defining a clear red line for Iran’s nuclear programme, Netanyahu is clarifying the circumstances under which he would take military action, but also making clear to Iran and the international community how it can avoid that eventuality.

He will hope his speech further galvanises the already considerable international efforts to pressure Iran through sanctions to stop enrichment, at least to the 20 per cent level. Netanyahu knows that the international community is keen to prevent Iran getting a bomb, but also to prevent Israel from resorting to military action. The international focus around the issue will now build up in anticipation of the red line being reached next year. Iran’s progress towards the red line as defined by Netanyahu is observable publicly through the IAEA’s periodic reports which state how much uranium Iran has amassed.

225kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium is reckoned to be needed to produce the 25kg of high enriched uranium required for one bomb. According to the last IAEA report in August, Iran had a stockpile of just over 90kg of 20% enriched uranium, having converted some of its stock into fuel for civilian use in the Tehran Research Reactor. Between May and August Iran produced about 15kg of 20% enriched uranium a month, but also installed more centrifuges, giving it the potential to increase its rate of production. This is presumably the equation that has led Netanyahu to conclude that Iran will reach his red line by spring or summer of 2013.

By defining a red line which will not be reached for at least six months, Netanyahu has signalled clearly that there will be no overt military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities this year. This will relieve the immediate suspense, and the threat of war prior to the US presidential elections, whilst simultaneously putting pressure on Obama, who has resisted defining a red line.

Netanyahu has also put Iran on notice that should they reach the red line, he is all but committed to taking military action against its uranium enrichment facilities at Netanz and Fordow. At the same time, Netanyahu appears to be sending a message implicitly, that if Iran were to cease enrichment to 20 per cent, or voluntarily reduce its stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium, Israel will not act militarily against it. This also implies that Israel will not act militarily if Iran continues only low enrichment up to three per cent. Nonetheless, Netanyahu has limited his own room for manoeuvre. It will be difficult him to climb down from this threat and remain credible should the red line be reached.

What is going to happen next?

The P5+1 (five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) are meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly to assess their diplomatic strategy. Recent talks with Iran aimed at resolving the crisis, through an interim deal that would see Iran stop enrichment to 20 per cent, came to nothing. However, contacts remain open through the office of EU foreign affairs representative Catherine Ashton, and it will remain to be seen whether Netanyahu’s ultimatum shifts Iranian behaviour.

Meanwhile the European powers and the US will continue to try and ratchet up the pressure on Iran, which is already struggling due to sanctions on its oil industry and banking sector. Britain, France and Germany are pressing their EU partners to back new sanctions on Iran at an EU summit in mid-October.

All eyes will also be on the next IAEA safeguards report, due at the end of November, to see how much Iran’s stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium has grown, and how much closer to the red line Iran has advanced.