At U.N., Netanyahu tries to portray Iran as ticking time bomb

For Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s all about advancing the view that a nuclear Iran is not simply a theoretical threat, but a ticking time bomb.

It’s why he’s pressing President Obama to establish explicit red lines when it comes to Iran’s nuclear progress. It’s why he came to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday brandishing a placard with a cartoonish diagram of a bomb meant to depict Iran’s nuclear threat.

And it’s why, in a first, Netanyahu offered an explicit timetable about when he believes Iran will reach the nuclear red line in 2013.

“By next spring, next summer at most,” Iran will have finished the “medium enrichment” stage, Netanyahu said in his U.N. speech, pointing to the red line he had drawn on his diagram. “From there, it’s less than a few months, possibly a few weeks, until they get enough uranium for an enriched bomb. The relevant question is not when will Iran get the bomb; the question is at what stage can we stop Iran?”

President Obama, who addressed the U.N. General Assembly two days earlier, made clear he, too, will not abide an Iranian nuclear bomb. While he agreed with Netanyahu’s assessment of the broad threats a nuclear-armed Iran would pose, he has refused to commit the United States to a red line short of Iran’s actually obtaining a weapon. (Netanyahu says Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons capability).

“Make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” Obama told the General Assembly on Tuesday. “It would threaten the annihilation of Israel, the security of Gulf nations and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That’s why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

However, Obama noted, “America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so.” 

Obama also linked the recent anti-American violence triggered by a YouTube clip of a movie insulting the Prophet Mohammed to Holocaust denial.

“The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” Obama said. “But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed or the Holocaust that is denied.”

For the moment, it wasn’t clear what impact the rhetoric at the United Nations would have – on world opinion, on the U.S. stance on Iran, or on American votes for president come November. But Obama’s Iran remarks and Netanyahu’s praise for them may be a sign that public tensions between the U.S. and Israeli administrations on Iran, which spilled over into public view in recent weeks, are subsiding.

The Israeli leader reportedly had been miffed that Obama turned down a meeting with him during the General Assembly in New York. The White House countered that the president was not meeting with any world leaders. And some Democrats were irked when Netanyahu went on the Sunday morning talk shows in America to push the Iran issue, viewing it as meddling in election-year politics. That followed Netanyahu’s declaration in Israel on Sept. 11 that nations that fail to establish a clear red line on Iran “don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel” — a statement Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called “utterly contrary to the extraordinary United States-Israel alliance.”

This week, it seemed, there was an effort to move beyond these episodes. 

“I very much appreciate the president’s position, as does everyone in my country,” Netanyahu said on Thursday.

Obama’s remarks on Iran and Netanyahu’s praise for Obama “lowered the noise” on the tensions, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

While the Palestinians’ unilateral statehood bid made headlines at last year’s annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, this year it was clear that Iran was the main event, with the Palestinian issue barely a sideshow.

Even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech gained strong applause in the cavernous hall, it didn’t get much attention elsewhere.

Abbas lashed out against Israel's “apartheid” policies against the Palestinian people and won sustained applause when he called for non-member state status at the United Nations. He talked about Israel’s “position of apartheid against the Palestinian people,” and said, “Israel is promising the Palestinian people a new catastrophe, a new Nakba. I speak on behalf of an angry people.” Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, is the term Palestinians use for Israel’s creation.

The Palestinian issue got little more than passing reference in Netanyahu's and Obama’s speeches. If anything, Obama appeared to lay more blame on the Palestinians for the standstill in negotiations, talking about the need to “leave behind those who thrive on conflict, those who reject the right of Israel to exist,” without singling out any obstacles to peace on the Israeli side.

On Wednesday, Yom Kippur, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad delivered what is likely to be his last speech at the world body, with his term set to end within a year. He made but scant reference to his country’s nuclear program, decrying how the “pledge to disclose these armaments in due time is now being used as a new language of threats against nations.” He added, “Continued threats by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to a military action against our great nation is a clear example of this bitter reality.”

The U.S. and Israeli ambassadors walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech.

Ahmadinejad also waxed about the need for a “new world order” and spoke of a world devoid of “egoism, distrust, malicious behavior and dictatorships, with no one violating the rights of others.” Included in his list was a world with “the right to criticize the hegemonic policies and actions of the world Zionism.”

Earlier in the week, the Iranian president has said that Israel “had no roots” in the Middle East. Netanyahu devoted the opening of his speech to that.

“King David some 3,000 years ago reigned in our Jewish state in the eternal capital of our people,” Netanyahu said. “Throughout Jewish history, our people have overcome all of the tyrants that have sought our destruction. It’s their ideologies that have been discarded by history. The Jewish people live on.”