Red Line Blurs as Obama Set to Arrive

YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters) -

President Barack Obama is set to arrive in Israel on Wednesday, at the onset of spring — the “red line” previously drawn by his host, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to trigger an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. But an Israeli-Iranian war does not appear trip-wire imminent.

Officials and analysts say Iran warded off Israel’s threat by calibrating midlevel uranium enrichment so it does not accrue enough fuel for a potential first bomb — the threshold Netanyahu warned about in a September U.N. speech.

He was presenting a worst-case extrapolation from U.N. nuclear inspector reports. The most recent of those, however, found a slowdown in the stockpiling of the 20-percent fissile uranium that Iran, in the face of mounting Western suspicions, says is part of a peaceful program.

Netanyahu has not publicly revised the spring-to-summer 2013 dating for his “red line.” But several Israeli officials privately acknowledged it had been deferred, maybe indefinitely.

“The red line was never a deadline,” one told Reuters.

In an interview with Israeli media last Thursday, Obama voiced cautious hope that negotiations, re-launched last month between the United States, five other world powers and Iran, could still curb its disputed nuclear drive.

“There’s a window, not an infinite period of time but a window of time, where we can resolve this diplomatically,” he said.

The U.S. “red line” was Iran reaching the verge of acquiring a nuclear bomb, Obama said, adding: “That would take over a year or so … but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close.”

“The key question is not when Iran will have a bomb, but only when we can no longer prevent Iran from having a bomb,” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, told reporters.

He accused Iran of planning to run an accelerated “shorter track” toward nuclear weaponry “that is invisible because it is underground.”

An Israeli official posited Iran could gather 230 kg to 240 kg of midlevel uranium, just short of a bomb’s worth, and then, between inspectors’ weekly visits to the enrichment plants, churn out the few kilograms needed to close the gap.

Next, it could move all the material to a secret location for later processing into weapons fuel, making the Islamic Republic a “latent nuclear power,” the official argued.

“For now, we know what sites would have to be targeted in a military strike,” the official said. “Can any of us … be sure of having such full knowledge in the future?”

The U.S. sounds more secure about nuclear inspections and intelligence monitoring of the Iranians, as well as its ability to intervene militarily at short notice.

“We assess Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU [weapons-grade uranium] before this activity is discovered,” U.S. national intelligence director James Clapper said on Tuesday.

Gary Samore, Obama’s former nuclear nonproliferation adviser, disputed the idea that Iran would break out of the U.N. inspections regime with just one bomb’s worth of fuel, or that it would be capable of making a quick switch to the highest level of uranium enrichment, given its technical lags.