By Representative Elton Gallegly
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a persuasive case at the United Nations General Assembly Thursday for a clear red line to ward off Iran's nuclear weapons program. Time is running out and the United States should listen to the Israeli leader and draw a clear line for Tehran.
Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly showed he was willing to draw the line on Iran's enriched uranium production and put the focus on President Obama's refusal to do that so far.
"At stake is the future of the world," Netanyahu said. "Nothing could imperil our common future more than arming Iran with nuclear weapons.
"Just imagine their long-range missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, their terror networks armed with atomic bombs. Who among you would feel safe in the Middle East? Who would be safe in Europe? Who would be safe in America? Who would be safe any where?"
The Prime Minister said that Iran had completed the first phase of its uranium enrichment program, which took several years, but that the second phase would be completed by spring or summer of next year. The third and final phase, he said, would take only months or even weeks, giving Iran enough highly enriched uranium for its first nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu said the world had to draw a line and take military action if Iran reached the end of the second phase.
"The red line must be drawn on Iran's nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target," he said. "I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down."
So without saying so explicitly, Israel's prime minister implied that Israel would not act unilaterally with a military response until Iran reached the red line he outlined and would give diplomacy and sanctions until next year, after U.S. elections, to force Iran to change course.
In his own address to the U.N. Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged the seriousness of the Iranian nuclear program.
"Make no mistake, a nuclear armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained," the President said. "It would threaten the elimination 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 is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
But the President did not spell out what doing "what we must" entails or what point in the Iranian nuclear program the United States might take military action to stop it.
The President continues to put too much reliance on diplomacy and sanctions. Congress has insisted on increasingly harsh sanctions on Iran, often in the face of stiff opposition from the Obama Administration.
Even the strongest sanctions will not make a difference if the Administration doesn't strictly and universally enforce them. As has been widely reported, the Administration has routinely exempted allies and important trading partners from compliance. And as Andrew Davenport and Ilan Berman said in their Washington Post column Thursday, the current U.S. sanctions policy is "simultaneously extensive and flimsy." In only a few cases have violators faced sanctions.
Despite their weaknesses, the current U.S. and European Union sanctions have impacted the Iranian economy. Iran's oil exports have declined by more than 50 percent in the past year and bread, meat and electricity prices have soared. But the Mullahs in Tehran are willing to sacrifice the well-being of Iranians while putting more and more of their nation's resources into their nuclear program.
After declining the opportunity to meet with Netanyahu at the U.N., the President and the Prime Minister spoke by telephone Friday. While a White House statement said both men agreed on the goal of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program, no mention was made of any progress toward resolving the disagreement between Israel and the U.S. on issuing an ultimatum to Tehran.
It's clear the current U.S. position has not slowed Iranian progress toward nuclear weapons capability. In fact, publicly available reports by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) document that Iran has accelerated its uranium enrichment program. The IAEA reports that Iran doubled the number of centrifuges at Qom used for that effort in just this year.
It's also clear that Iran is trying to cut the time to reach what Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barark calls the "zone of immunity," where Tehran is close enough to having a weapon that it becomes immune from attack for fear of nuclear retaliation.
Diplomacy and sanctions should always be the first choice. But all of the diplomacy, all of the sanctions against Iran so far, have not slowed Iran's program. The lack of a credible red line unfortunately has given Iran the time it needs to reach its nuclear goals. And it has been viewed by the Iranians as a sign of U.S. weakness.
The United States cannot allow Iran to threaten the world. Iran cannot reach a "zone of immunity." There has to be a deadline. The U.S. should join Israel in declaring a clear, unambiguous red line for Iran that must not be crossed. Such clarity is the best way to avoid war.
Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly represents Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in Congress and is vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. He served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2003-2011.