The Thin Red Line
The time to use force against Iran is not next year. It’s now.

Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N., September 27, 2012


Before we get to the nitty-gritty of Israel’s new Iranian red line, let’s be clear about one thing: The U.S. and its allies have already completely botched this whole situation. Ever since the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, we have been giving Iran a green light to make nuclear weapons. The green light has been constant, brilliant, mesmerizing, and irresistible.

At every Iranian decision point, Western governments have communicated with utter clarity that the next several steps in Iran’s nuclear program would carry no risk of a military confrontation. The result, quite naturally, is that Iran is about to get nuclear weapons, and almost nothing can stop it.

There is still a chance for a peaceful resolution. But that painfully small sliver of hope rests on the assumption that the West will do now, when it makes the least sense and carries the greatest risk, what it was unwilling to do earlier, when it made the most sense and carried the least risk.

Now Israel has drawn a red line. At the United Nations last week, this is what Prime Minister Netanyahu said:

Iran has to go through three stages [to build a nuclear weapon]. The first stage: They have to enrich enough of low-enriched uranium. The second stage: They have to enrich enough medium-enriched uranium. And the third stage and final stage: They have to enrich enough high-enriched uranium for the first bomb. Where’s Iran? Iran’s completed the first stage. It took them many years, but they completed it and they’re 70 percent of the way there. 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 moved on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb. . . . So if these are the facts, and they are, where should the red line be drawn? The red line should be drawn right here . . . before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb. Before Iran gets to a point where it’s a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

At long last, a precise red line has emerged in the slow-moving Iranian nuclear crisis: Iran cannot be allowed to complete the second stage of nuclear enrichment. What does that mean exactly? According to the latest quarterly report (based entirely on Iranian disclosures) of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has amassed perhaps half of the medium-enriched uranium (MEU, 20 percent enriched) that it would need for a warhead before the uranium is further enriched to weapons grade (highly enriched uranium, or HEU, which is 90+ percent enriched). At current rates of enrichment, Iran will amass enough MEU for a single warhead by next summer and will then be ready to complete the third stage, enrichment to weapons-grade uranium, in a matter of weeks. The Israeli position is that Iran must not be allowed to complete enough MEU for a warhead.

This red line is a fantasy. What will Israel do if Iran crosses it? Presumably, it will try to bomb the enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow. But those plants are deep underground, beneath steel-reinforced concrete and tons of earth. Israel could hit them with everything it has (short of its own nuclear weapons) and still barely make a dent on the nuclear program.

And this assumes that Iran’s two known enrichment facilities are its only ones. But it stopped declaring production of centrifuges to the IAEA years ago. We have no idea how many centrifuges it now has. It defies reason to assume that Iran has no enrichment plants other than the ones we know of, at Natanz and Fordow. In fact, both of these plants started life as secret facilities before our spotty intelligence services discovered them.

Moreover, the known enrichment plants are now arguably secondary targets. Iran has amassed enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) for five or more weapons, and it will soon have enough MEU for another, assuming the stockpiles are enriched to weapons grade. According to Greg Jones of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, both stockpiles together would take up about one cubic yard. In other words, Iran’s precious stockpile of enriched uranium is as mobile as the Ford pickup truck that could take it anywhere.