First, he said that Israel would not be going ahead with a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities this year, abandoning the much feared “October surprise.” Secondly, he spelled out a new “red line” that Iran will not be allowed to cross as far as its nuclear activities are concerned. This will be the moment when Iran has acquired enough more highly enriched uranium to build one nuclear bomb – a moment that in Mr Netanyahu’s view may come by next summer.
In recent days, Israeli officials visiting London have spelled out the details regarding this new red line. In their view, Iran by next summer will have acquired some 240kg of more highly enriched uranium (that is uranium at a 20 per cent concentration). This could be converted by Iran into enough weapons grade uranium (at a 90 per cent concentration) to provide Iran with one nuclear weapon.
The difficulty for the Israeli government is that while western leaders are relieved that Mr Netanyahu postponed plans for a strike this autumn, they don’t regard his new red line as having much credibility either.
In the UK, for example, senior officials question how genuine this new Israeli red line is. In the view of one senior British official, Iran may end up with enough 20 per cent enriched uranium for one bomb by next summer – but this does not constitute a viable programme. “It could give Iran enough uranium for one nuclear test but then they would have nothing else by way of a nuclear weapons capability for some time,” says this person. “Iran would not have what you call a viable nuclear weapons programme.”
Moreover, even if Iran took the final decision next summer to use 240kg of more highly-enriched uranium, it would still need several more months before a bomb could be completed. Iran would need months to convert the more highly enriched uranium to weapons grade. It would also need months to construct the entire warhead. Throughout this period, the world would be able to see what Iran was doing because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the world’s nuclear watchdog – has full oversight of activities at Iran’s two enrichment plants. There would therefore be time for Israel, the US and its allies to mount a pre-emptive military strike ahead of a nuclear test.
The outcome of the US presidential election, of course, may change perceptions of Mr Netanyahu’s red line. At various times this year, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, has aligned himself closely with Mr Netanyahu’s view that Iran should not be allowed to have the general “capability” to acquire a weapon. Having a stock of 240kg of 20 per cent uranium could be judged to constitute a “capability.”
However, President Barack Obama has outlined a later deadline for military action – one which focuses on stopping Iran only when it has taken the final strategic decision to build a weapon and starts engaging in the production of more highly-enriched uranium at 90 per cent.
We do not know which of these American views on deadlines will prevail. But if the current view held by the Obama and Cameron governments remains in the ascendant, then Israel will be in difficulty. Israel could once again threaten to take military action against Iran next summer. But one of the things we have seen in the course of 2012 is the deep internal debate in the Israeli military establishment over whether it can conduct such an operation by itself. It is not clear that this internal angst has been resolved in any way.
Besides, there are other reasons why Israel might end up being persuaded next summer to wait a little longer before taking military action. International sanctions are having a significant impact on the Iranian economy. As a result, there are signs that the debate around the Iranian Supreme leader over whether to make concessions over the nuclear programme is intensifying. The Israelis are also hoping to acquire more military equipment from the US over the next 18 months – most notably in assets such as air-to-air refueling. This would put Israel in a much better position to take military action alone against Iran if it waits a little longer.
All told, this leads some Iran watchers in London to conclusions about the way events will develop. They believe that 2013 will again be a year of high international tension over the Iranian programme, with much talk of Israeli threats and Iranian retaliation. But the real moment of truth over military action will not come until 2014 and possibly not even until the latter half of that year.
In 2013, the hope is that Iran is finally forced into significant concessions on its nuclear programme, concessions that defuse the entire decade-long crisis. But if not, then it is only in late 2014 that the real red line will arrive as far as military action is concerned. At that point, Iran will have such a large stock of uranium enriched to 20 per cent that it will be able to achieve a sudden break-out towards a nuclear test – without the world having enough time to launch a pre-emptive strike.