U.S. officials reiterated Thursday the Obama administration's disagreement with Israel over the need to draw red lines for Iran to stop its nuclear program, just hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implored world leaders at the U.N. to prevent Iran from reaching the final stage of uranium enrichment.
Amid still-simmering tensions between Washington and Jerusalem, U.S. officials underscored Netanyahu's non-confrontational tone toward U.S. President Barack Obama, and his expression of gratitude for the president's warning to Tehran on Tuesday. But the officials privately made clear that Washington remains opposed to Netanyahu's push for Obama to set a red line that Tehran must not cross if it is to avoid military action.
The White House also released a statement Thursday highlighting the shared interest Israel and the U.S. have in denying Iran a nuclear weapon and their close consultations on the matter. But the White House stopped short of saying Obama would give any ground on his resistance to setting a red line on Iran's nuclear program.
"As the prime minister said, the United States and Israel share the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor said. "The president made that clear to the world in his United Nations General Assembly speech this week. We will continue our close consultation and cooperation toward achieving that goal."
Earlier Thursday, in his speech to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu once again called on the international community to stop Iran's nuclear program before it becomes too late. Netanyahu held up a diagram of a nuclear bomb showing the uranium enrichment thresholds that Iran is allegedly trying to cross. "Now they are well into the second stage. 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," Netanyahu warned. "From there, it's only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb." The Israeli premier proceeded to draw a red line on the diagram marking the final stage, where Iran would reach 90 percent enrichment, saying Iran must not be allow to reach that level. Experts believe that Iran would have enough uranium at that point to quickly produce an atomic bomb.
Obama has not set an ultimatum nor a clear red line against Iran, despite public urging from Netanyahu over the past several weeks which has aggravated strains between the two leaders. Obama, seeking re-election on Nov. 6, opted not to meet Netanyahu on the latter's U.S. visit, which was widely seen in Israel as a snub. But the White House said the two leaders would speak by phone, likely on Friday. Obama was on Air Force One, returning from a campaign rally in Virginia, at the time of Netanyahu's U.N. appearance, and a White House aide said the president did not have a chance to watch the speech.
By referring to a spring or summer 2013 time frame for Iran to complete the next stage of uranium enrichment, the Israeli leader also seemed to dispel, at least for now, fears that Israel might strike Iran before the U.S. presidential election, now 40 days away. Netanyahu's speech sounded a relatively conciliatory note with respect to the ongoing disagreement with the U.S., and Obama for his tough stance on Iran. "I very much appreciate the president's position, as does everyone in my country. We share the goal of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program," Netanyahu said in his address on Thursday. "Israel is [engaged] in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident we can chart a path forward together," he said.
Netanyahu told the U.N. he believes that faced with a clear red line, Iran would back down in a crisis that has sent jitters across the region and across financial markets. "And this will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program altogether," said the prime minister, who later met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for 75 minutes.
Netanyahu's remarks were the closest he or any top Israeli official has come to publicly laying out precisely which Iranian actions could trigger an Israeli military strike on Tehran's nuclear infrastructure. In his speech, Netanyahu never explicitly said that if Iran crossed his red line, Israel would launch attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities, but he did seem to imply such a threat.
Iran, Netanyahu said, was well into what he defined as the second stage of enrichment — 20% purification — and predicted it would complete that stage by "next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates."
According to an August report by the International Atomic Energy Agency., Iran has stockpiled 91.4 kilograms (201.5 pounds) of the 20% material.
Some experts say Iran would need 200 to 250 kilograms (440 to 550 pounds) of such material for a weapon. Other experts suggest less might do it. Iran could potentially reach that threshold soon by producing roughly 15 kilograms (33 pounds) a month, a rate that could be speeded up if it activates new enrichment centrifuges.
According to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, around 25 kilograms (55.1 pounds) of uranium enriched to a 90% purity level would be needed for a single nuclear weapon.
Iran's U.N. mission, responding to Netanyahu's speech, accused him of making "baseless and absurd allegations" and said the Islamic republic "reserves its full right to retaliate with full force against any attack."
Iran called Netanyahu's visual tool "an unfounded and imaginary graph ... used to justify a threat against a founding Member of the United Nations."
Netanyahu's remarks also seemed to deliver a two-part message to the Obama White House — along with Iran's leaders, his most important audience — signaling that the prime minister wanted an end to the all-too-public war of words with Washington over Iran's suspected nuclear ambitions.
But they also showed he was not backing down from his insistence that harsher warnings must be delivered to Tehran.
In his own speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama said the United States will "do what we must" to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and that time is not unlimited for diplomacy to resolve the issue.
Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Russia and China have negotiated with Iran without success in one form or another for nearly 10 years to persuade it to halt its nuclear program in exchange for political and economic incentives.
Addressing the General Assembly on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said disagreement over Iran's nuclear program had reached "a new, crucial stage," and urged a diplomatic solution.
The six nations, whose foreign ministers met at the United Nations on Thursday, have held three rounds of talks with Iran this year without visible progress. A U.S. official voiced hope for a fourth round "in the not-too-distant future."
As if to highlight Netanyahu's concerns that tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran are unlikely due to Russian and Chinese resistance, the group failed to agree on any plan for further steps against Tehran, envoys said.
Seeking re-election, Obama has faced criticism from Republican challenger former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney that the president is being too tough with Israel and not tough enough with Iran.
Netanyahu spoke a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the General Assembly.
Ahmadinejad said on Monday he did not take seriously the threat that Israel could launch a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. He also said Israel has no roots in the Middle East and would be "eliminated."
Netanyahu has faced opposition within his cabinet and from former Israeli security chiefs to any go-it-alone attack on Iran. Opinion polls show Israelis are wary of any such strike by their military, whose capability of destroying underground Iranian facilities is limited.
Israel, believed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence and has expressed frustration over the failure of diplomacy and sanctions to rein in Tehran's nuclear activity.
Iran says it is enriching uranium only for peaceful energy and medical purposes, not for nuclear bombs.