Netanyahu also established March as a key month for Iran’s nuclear program

According to Micah Zenko, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) and Hillary Clinton’s recent endorsement of a March deadline for Iran nuclear talks is a pressure tactic resulting from exasperation over the lack of progress thus far. (His focus on US reasoning gives more weight to the claim that the IAEA is heavily influenced by the US.) But Zenko doesn’t point out that March 2013 had also been established as a key month by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu back in September.

During his speech at this year’s UN Annual General Assembly, Netanyahu used a much-ridiculed cartoon graphic to show that Iran could complete the second to last stage of uranium enrichment required to create a bomb by the Spring or Summer of 2013:

Where’s Iran? Iran’s completed the first stage. It took them many years, but they completed it and they’re 70% 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 move 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.

He concluded that Iran could be stopped if a “credible” “red line” was set. Netanyahu’s assessment was critiqued by the non-proliferation focused Arms Control Association, among others, as “overly alarmist“. And until now, the US has defied Israeli pressure to set their line according to Israel’s, so what’s with this March deadline? Zenko’s analysis:

The answer depends greatly on whether the timeline to attack Iran is based on Israel’s national interest and its military capabilities, or those of the United States. Israeli officials have stated at various times that redlines should be “clear” (without providing clarity) and that they “should be made, but not publicly.” One also said, “I don’t want to set redlines or deadlines for myself.” Since November 2011, Israeli officials have also warned about a “zone of immunity,” which Barak has described as “not where the Iranians decide to break out of the non-proliferation treaty and move toward a nuclear device or weapon, but at the place where the dispersal, protection and survivability efforts will cross a point that would make a physical strike impractical.”

It is unclear how dispersed, protected, or survivable Iran’s nuclear program would have to be, but Secretary Clinton’s warning of “components…on a shelf somewhere” could indicate that the Obama administration is moving toward the zone of immunity logic. But what are these components, how many would be required to assume “weaponization,” and how would this new intelligence be presented as a justification for war? In addition, it is tough to make the case for going to war with Iran because it refused to concentrate its nuclear sites (that are under IAEA safeguards) in above-ground facilities that can be easily bombed.

Previously, U.S. officials have been less eager than the Israelis to define a specific redline, largely because the two countries have different perceptions of the Iranian threat and vastly different military capabilities. Setting a March deadline provides some certainty and perhaps coercive leverage to compel Iran to cooperate with the IAEA. But declaring deadlines also places U.S. “credibility” on the line, generating momentum to use force even if there is no new actionable intelligence that Iran has decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. Based on what we know right now, that would be a strategic miscalculation.

Some analysts are meanwhile suggesting that Zenko is completely off the mark. Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament program at the international Institute for Security Studies, called Zenko’s analysis “alarmist” today on Twitter: “With respect, you are wrong about the meaning of the March deadline for #iran to answer IAEA Qs. It only means new Resolution,” he said.

“If anyone else had written an alarmist claim the US set a March deadline for war, @MicahZenko would have roasted it,” said Fitzpatrick.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.