It was predictable: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s drawing of a red line on a picture of an Iranian nuclear bomb during his Sept. 27 address to the UN General Assembly elicited highly polarized reactions.
Some saw it as an effective way to communicate to a wide audience just how imminent and dangerous an Iranian bomb is. Others, including even those such as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg who sympathize with Israel’s Iran predicament, said it was a degrading prop and was bound to have the opposite impact.
As Goldberg wrote in his Atlantic blog on Sept. 28: “Netanyahu shouldn’t have waved around that cartoonish drawing on the podium of the United Nations. It made him look unserious, and a man in his position can’t afford to look unserious.”
Just the opposite reaction came from some unexpected sources. Allison Sommer, writing in the Sept. 28 Ha’aretz, drew attention to the following tweets from Paul Danahar, Middle East bureau chief for the BBC (someone, Sommer noted, who’s far from “being reflexively pro-Netanyahu”):
“Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb has guaranteed he gets the front page photo from the UN tomorrow.”
”Anyone remember what Abbas said?… Bibi has done what he set out to do: he’s set the agenda.”
Sommer herself was cynically realistic: “Netanyahu and his advisers had to know that mockery and ridicule would be part of the package, and obviously, they didn’t care. It almost appeared as if they were asking for it.” After all, the “cartoon bomb guaranteed he would be all over the Internet for the next news cycle – and beyond.”
And indeed talk about the “cartoon” was everywhere.
But on what Sommer describes as the key question – “[D]id it really help move Netanyahu’s case forward in terms of motivating the global community to crack down on Iran and support his ‘red line?’” – there is only continuing debate.
One irony, which was picked up by a number of Israeli analysts, is that while one would assume the diagram was carefully drawn to show where Iran must be stopped before it can have a functioning weapon, it was in fact confusing.
The bomb was divided into three stages: the first, largest stage showed that Iran was already “70 per cent” of the way there. The second stage indicated it would soon be “90 per cent” to its goal and that the “red line” had to be drawn at the top of this stage just before Iran could complete the third and final stage of actually having the bomb.
However, at the “90 per cent” point (if this meant 90 per cent fuel enrichment, which is weapons grade), it would already be too late to stop Iran.
While western journalists have done a good job explaining the Iranian nuclear threat overall, they have done a poor job explaining in layman’s terms where Iran is now (at 20 per cent fuel enrichment) and where it needs to get (to 90 per cent enrichment) and how long that will take, given that, according to the latest (August) report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has installed more centrifuges at its Fordo nuclear site to speed up this process. One doesn’t need to be a nuclear expert to understand this.
But one might have assumed that Netanyahu would have made this clear in his drawing and explanation. He did not.
In the Sept. 29 Ha’artez, Amos Harel, the paper’s military affairs correspondent clarified the issue: “The 90 per cent that Netanyahu was talking of is a red line representing quantity, not purity, meaning obtaining 90 per cent of the amount [of uranium] required to produce a nuclear weapon… Keep in mind that Netanyahu is still talking about uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity… from which it will be possible to later produce a nuclear bomb, after it is further enriched. This, says Netanyahu, is a threshold that is unacceptable to Israel. Iran is expected to pass this threshold next summer, if it isn’t stopped.”
Even cartoons can make this much clear.
Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.