Netanyahu Draws a Red Line at the UN

This past Thursday, Sept 27, 2012, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the United Nations General Assembly that Iran will have amassed enough enriched uranium by next summer to produce its first nuclear weapon. He emphasised that the international community ought to draw the line to halt Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, a message he dramatically illustrated by literally marking a red line through a cartoonish diagram of a bomb.  In this short article I will argue that Netanyahu’s speech was specifically geared towards the American political elite and will not change the UN member states’ foreign policies towards Iran.

Image courtesy of Downing Street, © 2010, some rights reserved.

After almost a decade of continuous negotiations and enforced sanctions on Iran by the United Nations to halt its nuclear programme, the country still has not altered its course in amassing enriched uranium and is refusing to make any concessions. Despite alarming reports published by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the international community has decided to continue its current course of diplomacy and keep enforcing sanctions on the country. Prime Minister Netanyahu perceives the situation to be more urgent,  and argued at the UN General Assembly that Iran would be a very serious threat to the entire international community if it were to acquire a nuclear weapon; ‘‘to understand what the world would be like with a nuclear-armed Iran, just imagine the world with a nuclear-armed Al-Qaeda’’.

In response, Iranian officials refuted what they called ‘’baseless and absurd allegations’’ and stated that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful and solely for the purpose of generating electricity. Earlier in the week at the United Nations General Assembly, the Iranian Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had denounced the United States for ignoring Israel’s nuclear capability whilst at the same time trying to halt Iran’s peaceful nuclear ambitions. The country’s deputy ambassador, Eshaq al-e-Habib, compared Netanyahu’s speech to that of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who accused Iraq of having weapons of mass destruction before the United Nations in 2003 – which ultimately turned out to be a false claim based on little evidence.

Though Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric about the immediate danger of a nuclear-armed Iran did not significantly differ from previous ones, the speech did in fact have a softened tone specifically to appease the Obama administration. In mid-September, the Prime Minister had argued that the United States had no ‘’moral right’’ to hold back Israel from taking affirmative action since President Obama had refused to set a deadline on negotiations with Iran. With the widening gap between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the presidential polls, Israel will endeavour to remain on the incumbent administration’s ‘’good side’’ rather than hope for a more hawkish US government. For this reason, Netanyahu took the pressure off the Obama administration by pushing the deadline for a potential military intervention to next year.[2]

The White House later issued a statement underlining that the United States completely agrees with Israel on the importance of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and reaffirming that the United States is unshakably committed to Israel’s security.[3] However, the United States stated it believes that this should be done through a continuation of negotiations and sanctions rather than military action. The permanent members of the UN Security Council concur that diplomacy is the preferred course of action to taking drastic measures in order to prevent an escalation of the conflict. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a report the same day, stating that the international sanctions already imposed on Iran are in fact having a deep impact on the country’s economy and may have even slightly destabilised their government.

The Permanent Five do not dispute Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claim that Iran will have amassed enough uranium to manufacture a nuclear bomb, but insist that if Iran wanted to convert its uranium to bomb-grade fuel, –which requires a much higher purity than that of Iran’s enriched uranium at the moment – the government would have to throw out the nuclear inspectors and take steps in the nuclear enrichment process that would be easily noticeable.[4]

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech is not only a warning to the international community about Iran’s future nuclear capability, but it is also a way to show the world that Israel has adopted a different attitude in reacting to the potential nuclear threat. Mr Netanyahu’s stance is more Obama-friendly because of the expectation that Israel would be more likely to have the United States’ support in future international disputes if President Obama gets re-elected. Since Israel has now set the deadline for military intervention to summer 2013, UN member states are expected to keep their current foreign policy of enforcing sanctions on Iran and to continue negotiations.

[2] Rick Gladstone and David E. Sanger, ‘’Nod to Obama by Netanyahu in Warning to Iran on Bomb’’ New York Times, September 27th, 2012.

[3] David Jackson, ‘’Obama speaks to Netanyahu, pledges support of Israel’’ USA Today, September 28th, 2012.

[4] Gladstone and Sanger, ‘’Nod to Obama by Netanyahu in Warning to Iran on Bomb’’.

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