Bibi's Red Line
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu told the UN yesterday that if Iran crosses the threshold of enriching uranium to 90% U-235 (1), Iran must be stopped from building atomic weapons by any means necessary, including military force. Since there is no known use for such highly-enriched uranium besides making nuclear weapons, enriching the radioactive metal to that level would be a sure sign that the Islamic Republic intends to make such a bomb. Netanyahu estimated that by the summer of 2013 Iran would have enough U-235 to make an atomic bomb, based on current rates of enrichment.
But how would anyone outside of Iran know if the uranium had been enriched beyond 90% U-235? Since Iran has refused to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), this information is not public. Apparently Israel has spies inside Iran that are reporting progress on the nuclear project, but it is far from clear that accurate information on Iran's nuclear program is available to Israel or the United States now, or will be available by the time that a decision to attack would have to be made. Even if Iran would suddenly permit inspections of some uranium-processing labs, how would anyone know if other labs were secretly enriching uranium to weapon-grade levels?
Netanyahu would like the United States to join Israel in drawing the "red-line" for Iran, and lead the attack if Iran crosses it. This will not happen for several reasons:
1. Iran is no threat to the United States. Sure, the Iranians held our diplomats hostage for over a year (1979-1981) and call us the "Great Satan", but Iranian leaders have never threatened to destroy the US. Even if the Iranians acquire a nuclear weapon, they would need ICBM's to use it on American territory, and they don't have them. Iran would be no more a threat than North Korea, which is also hostile to the US and has had atomic weapons for several years.
2. A war in the Middle East would be disastrous for the US. We have bases in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and other Muslim countries, all of which would be vulnerable to terrorist attacks by pro-Iranian Shiites. World oil prices would skyrocket, which would hurt the US economy, as well as those of Europe and Japan. (Even if Israel attacks Iran alone, the US would still suffer some of these consequences.)
3. Uncertainty about Iranian intentions. The US made war on Iraq on the basis on wrong intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, which cost this nation about a trillion dollars and thousands of dead American soldiers. Although we have closed down military operations in Iraq, the prospect of another war in the Middle East based upon questionable inferences from secret sources is appalling. Barack Obama, who vehemently criticized then-President George W Bush for the Iraq War, would be loathe to wage a war of his own on the basis of an intelligence estimate, especially against a larger and more powerful adversary.
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the nation's Foreign Ministry recommends another round of trade sanctions against Iran before military action is contemplated. This report, taken together with Netanyahu's estimate of nearly a year before Iran can produce a nuclear weapon, indicates that Israel will not hit Iran until next spring or summer, contrary to the prediction in our blog "Crunch Time in Iran." Iran has time to prevent war by opening all nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection without limit and placing its uranium under international control. But it does not have forever.
Gerald S Glazer
(1) The atomic weight of an element is the number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus.
The vast majority of natural uranium has atomic weight 238, and is only slightly radioactive. A tiny fraction has atomic weight 235, and this isotope (variant) is highly radioactive. Centrifuges are used to remove the lighter U-235 from gassified uranium ore. A quantity of uranium containing 20% U-235 is sufficient for peaceful uses, such as radiation treatments or electricity generation. To build an atomic weapon requires a minimum of 90% U-235, which is far richer than any peaceful use.