Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed his call on Sunday for the United States to set “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear program, and seemed to acknowledge differences between the Israeli and American assessments of the timetable for the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
The Iranian regime is “moving very rapidly to complete the enrichment of the [uranium] they need to complete a nuclear bomb,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday. “In six months or so they’ll be 90 percent of the way there.”
“They’re in the red zone,” Netanyahu told NBC’s Meet the Press, “in the last 20 yards, and you can’t let them cross that goal line, score a touchdown, because that would have unbelievable, grievous consequences for the peace of us all.”
For that reason, he said, “I think it’s important to place a red line before Iran.”
Netanyahu added that he believed red lines would lessen the chance of a conflict in the region. “I think that actually reduces the chance of military conflict, because if [Iranian leaders] know there’s a point, a stage, in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that they cannot cross – because they’ll face consequences – I think actually they’ll not cross it,” he told CNN.
Netanyahu’s message to millions of American viewers follows a week during which President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta all publicly disagreed with Netanyahu’s call to set “red lines” for Iran’s nuclear program.
The prime minister seemed to acknowledge disagreement with the Obama administration Sunday, noting, “I know people value flexibility. I think that’s important.”
But, he argued, “at this late stage of the game, I think that Iran needs to see clarity. I’m not sure I would have said this three years ago, two years ago, one year ago, but as we get closer and closer to the end game, I think we have to establish that. That’s becoming important.”
When Crowley noted that Obama has already promised to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu replied that “implicit in that is that he’ll stop them before they get a nuclear weapon, which means he’ll draw a red line somewhere. I think it’s important he communicate that to them.”
Pressed on the apparent gap between the sense of urgency in the Israeli government and the American administration’s stated willingness to wait for economic sanctions and other efforts to bear fruit, Netanyahu pinned the differences on the two countries’ strategic calculations.
“You’re a big country. You’re several thousand miles away. You have a stronger military capability,” he told CNN. “We’re a smaller country. We’re more vulnerable. They threaten our very annihilation. Obviously, we have different capabilities and different clocks.
“But,” he added, in a reference to recent Iranian efforts to move their enrichment capabilities to underground bunkers, “the difference between our capabilities is becoming less important, because Iran is fast approaching a point where it could disappear from our capabilities of stopping them. ‘Our capability’ means not only Israel.”
David Gregory, host of Meet the Press, pressed the prime minister about the election-season timing of his call for “red lines,” and about Republican contender Mitt Romney’s assertion that Obama had “thrown allies like Israel under the bus.”
Netanyahu declined repeatedly to comment on the elections or on differences between the candidates.
“What’s guiding my statements is not the American political calendar, but the Iranian nuclear calendar,” he told Gregory. “I have no doubt [Obama and Romney] are equally committed to preventing” an Iranian nuclear weapon. “It’s a vital American interest.”
He went further on CNN, noting that Israel enjoyed bipartisan support in the United States.
“People are trying to draw me into the American election, and I’m not going to do that. But I will say that we value, we cherish the bipartisan support for Israel in the United States, and we’re supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. This is not an electoral issue. It is not based on any electoral consideration. I think that there’s a common interest of all Americans of all political persuasions to stop Iran. This is a regime that is giving vent to the worst impulses that you see right now in the Middle East.”
America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, responded Sunday on CNN by saying there is “no daylight” between the US and Israel and saying Obama “will do what it takes” to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But, she said, “we are not at that stage yet.”
“Our bottom line — if you want to call it a red line — the president’s bottom line has been that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon, and we will take no option off the table to ensure that it does not acquire a nuclear weapon, including military,” Rice later said.