When Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu trotted out his cheesy bomb diagram in front of the General Assembly a week ago, the natural and popular comparison was to Wile E. Coyote and his mystifying brand allegiance to Acme. Another apt comparison, I think, is to Walter Sobchak from the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic, The Big Lebowski. After all, we know Walter (NSFW language) is a big fan of Theodor Herzl and drawing lines in the sand, and he’s definitely not afraid of calling out and aggressively policing a foot foul when he sees one. Bibi is also concerned with bright lines and swift enforcement, but it seems that bowling has firmer rules and clearer boundaries than international relations.
Despite the intractable suspicion and existential angst that an Iranian nuclear weapon threat provokes, it doesn’t really matter what Bibi or the rest of the world thinks about Iran’s ostensibly peaceful uranium enrichment. Its nuclear program—including the secretive research into nuclear fuel reprocessing which provoked sanctions—are within Tehran’s rights as a member of the NPT. Still, many can envision a fateful day in the not too distant future when Iran joins the nuclear club or transfers a weapon to a non-state actor. Netanyahu’s deep-seated fears of these scenarios are quite reasonable. Both he and Obama have repeatedly asserted that such an event is unacceptable, and that all options are on the table to prevent it.
“The relevant question is not when Iran will get the bomb,” Netanyahu said at the UN. “It is at what stage can we stop Iran from getting the bomb.” When Bibi grabbed his big magic marker and drew a red line across the top of his AED (Acme Explosive Device), he claimed that Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon would be irreversible by Spring or Summer of next year. Netanyahu has been pressuring the US to adopt an accelerated timetable on Iran’s nuclear program for a while, but Obama needs to refuse Bibi’s bait. The timetable is solely based on when Iran will have enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for one or two nuclear weapons. While this is the foremost technical hurdle to acquiring the bomb, designing a deliverable device is at least two years away for Iranian engineers. Bibi’s timetable would sacrifice this time, but a second Obama Administration ought to use these vital years to negotiate a resolution short of armed intervention.
It’s worth noting that Israel, Iran, and the US do not want a war. There’s just not much upside to it. Also, a targeted bombing raid might slow Iran’s program, but it would risk escalation, incite intense international criticism (particularly among Arab nations), and would not provide an enduring solution. As UN inspectors discovered after the first Gulf War, the 1981 raid on the Iraqi Osirak reactor only served to redouble Baghdad’s efforts to procure the bomb. Obama has repeatedly committed the US to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon by force when all other options fail. I’d prefer the US take its time en route to another war in the region. Obama mustn’t dither, but he needs to lead and not let Netanyahu set the pace or the agenda.
It’s a shame that Bibi’s bomb was so hilariously lo-fi. Not only did it divert from a substantive discussion of Iranian nuclear latency, it also shifted the focus away from the most important part of the diagram—the red line.