UNITED NATIONS -- In his most detailed plea to date for global action against Iran's nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday the world has until next summer at the latest to stop Iran before it can build a nuclear bomb.
Netanyahu flashed a diagram of a cartoon-like bomb before the U.N. General Assembly showing the progress Iran has made, saying it has already completed the first stage of uranium enrichment.
Then he pulled out a red marker and drew a line across what he said was a threshold Iran was approaching and which Israel could not tolerate -- the completion of the second stage and 90 percent of the way to the uranium enrichment needed to make an atomic bomb.
"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,'' he said. "From there, it's only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.''
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat, citing Iranian denials of the Holocaust, its calls for Israel's destruction, its development of missiles capable of striking the Jewish state and its support for hostile Arab militant groups.
On Thursday he presented his case to the world just why a nuclear armed Iran would be a danger to many other countries as well. Casting the battle as one between modernity and the "medieval forces of radical Islam,'' Netanyahu said deterrence would not work against Iran as it had with the Soviet Union.
"Deterrence worked with the Soviets, because every time the Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose survival,'' he said. But "militant jihadists behave very differently from secular Marxists. There were no Soviet suicide bombers. Yet Iran produces hordes of them.''
Netanyahu has repeatedly argued that time is running out to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power and that the threat of force must be seriously considered. Israeli leaders have issued a series of warnings in recent weeks suggesting that if Iran's uranium enrichment program continues it may soon stage a unilateral military strike. This week Iranian leaders suggested they may strike Israeli preemptively if they felt threatened, stoking fears of a regional war.
President Barack Obama has vowed to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power but has rejected Netanyahu's demands for setting an ultimatum past which the U.S. would attack. His administration has urgently sought to hold off Israeli military action, which would likely result in the U.S. being pulled into a conflict and cause region-wide mayhem on the eve of American elections. Netanyahu's 2013 Israeli deadline could be interpreted as a type of concession, but Israeli officials insisted action was still needed immediately and that in his speech Netanyahu was referring to the absolute point of no return.
Netanyahu appeared to be trying to soothe his differences with the White House when he thanked Obama's stance, adding that his own words were meant only to help achieve the common goal.
And he thanked the U.S. and other governments that have imposed sanctions which, he said, have hurt Iran's economy and curbed its oil exports but have not changed Tehran's intentions to develop the capacity to build nuclear weapons.
"I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down. This will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program altogether,'' the Israeli prime minister said. "Red lines don't lead to war, red lines prevent war.''
Netanyahu did not detail what should be done if his "red line'' was crossed, but the insinuation was clear. In perhaps his final plea before Israel felt the need to take matters into its own hands, Netanyahu pounded away at the dangers posed by Iran.
"To understand what the world would be like with a nuclear-armed Iran, just imagine the world with a nuclear-armed al-Qaida,'' he said. "Nothing could imperil the world more than a nuclear-armed Iran.''
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but Israel, the U.S. and other Western allies suspect otherwise. Four rounds of U.N. sanctions have already been placed on Iran.
A U.N. report last month only reinforced Israeli fears, finding that Iran has moved more of its uranium enrichment activities into fortified bunkers deep underground where they are impervious to air attack. Enrichment is a key activity in building a bomb, though it has other uses as well, such as producing medical isotopes.