WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Sunday that Iran was just six to seven months away from the brink of being able to build a nuclear bomb, adding urgency to his demand that President Barack Obama set a “red line” for Tehran in what could deepen the worst U.S.-Israeli rift in decades.
Taking to the television airwaves to make his case directly to the American public, Netanyahu said that by mid-2013 Iran would be “90 percent of the way” toward enough enriched uranium for a weapon. He again urged the United States to spell out limits that Tehran must not cross if it is to avoid military action - something Obama has refused to do.
“You have to place that red line before them now, before it’s too late,” Netanyahu said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program, adding that such a U.S. move could reduce the chances of having to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.
The unusually public dispute between close allies - coupled with Obama’s decision not to meet with Netanyahu later this month - has exposed a gaping U.S.-Israeli divide and stepped up pressure on the U.S. leader in the final stretch of a tight presidential election campaign.
It was the clearest marker Netanyahu has laid down so far on why he has become so strident in his push for Washington to confront Tehran with a strict ultimatum. At the same time, his approach could stoke further tensions with Obama, with whom he has had a notoriously testy relationship.
U.S. officials say Iran has yet to decide on a nuclear “breakout” - a final rush to assemble components for a bomb - and they express high confidence it is still at least a year away from the capacity to build one if it wanted to. This contrasts with Netanyahu’s timetable, although he stopped short of saying Iran had decided to manufacture a weapon.
Netanyahu showed no signs of backing off and equated the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran with the Islamist fury that fueled attacks on U.S. embassies across the Muslim world last week and shocked many Americans.
“It’s the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today. You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?” Netanyahu asked in the NBC interview, in a clear emotional appeal to Americans still reeling from the angry protests sparked by a film that mocked the Prophet Mohammad.
There have been no accusations, however, of any Iranian role stoking violence that hit Middle Eastern and African capitals.
‘IN THE RED ZONE’
Speaking via satellite from Jerusalem, Netanyahu argued that a credible U.S. ultimatum was needed to curb Iran, which denies it is seeking a nuclear bomb.
“They’re in the ‘red zone,'” Netanyahu said, using an American football metaphor for when a team is close to scoring a touchdown. “You can’t let them cross that goal line.”
Susan Rice, Obama’s U.N. envoy, offered no sign that Obama - who has asked Netanyahu to hold off on any strike on Iran’s nuclear sites to give sanctions and diplomacy time to work - intended to soften his resistance to red lines.
“We will take no option off the table to ensure that (Iran) does not acquire a nuclear weapon, including a military option,” Rice told “Meet the Press,” reiterating Obama’s longstanding position but insisting “they are not there yet.”
Israeli leaders, who see Iran’s nuclear advances as a looming threat, have made clear they are operating on a far tighter window than the United States, with a superpower’s mighty conventional arsenal at its disposal.
Asked whether Israel was closer to acting on its own, Netanyahu said: “We always reserve the right to act. But I think that if we are able to coordinate together a common position, we increase the chances that neither one of us will have to act.”
Obama, seeking re-election in November, has faced criticism from Republican rival Mitt Romney that the president is being too tough with Israel and not tough enough with Iran.
But Netanyahu took a more neutral posture on the election, denied he was meddling in U.S. politics in support of fellow conservative Romney and distanced himself from the Republican’s accusation Obama was “throwing Israeli under the bus.”
Netanyahu’s sharpened rhetoric in recent days had stoked speculation that Israel might attack Iran before the U.S. election, believing that Obama would give it military help and not risk alienating pro-Israeli voters.
Netanyahu has drawn criticism at home for overplaying his hand. He faces divisions within the Israeli public and his cabinet that will make it hard to launch a strike any time soon.
He said he appreciated Obama’s assurances Iran would not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon. But Netanyahu, whose “red line” demands have infuriated U.S. officials, made clear that was not enough. “I think a red line, in this case, works to reduce the chances of the need for military action,” he said.
In his most specific comments on Iran’s nuclear work, Netanyahu told CNN: “They’re moving very rapidly to completing the enrichment of the uranium that they need to produce a nuclear bomb. In six months or so they’ll be 90 percent of the way there.”
He appeared to be referring to Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, a level it says is required for medical isotopes but which also is close to bomb-fuel grade. According to an August report by U.N. inspectors, Iran has stockpiled 91.4 kg of the 20 percent material.
Experts say about 200-250 kg (440-550 pounds) would be the minimum required to enrich further into enough material for a bomb, a threshold Iran could potentially reach soon by producing roughly 15 kg (33 pounds) a month, a rate that could be speeded up if it activates new uranium centrifuges.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned that Iran may be approaching a “zone of immunity” in which Israeli bombs would be unable to penetrate buried facilities. The United States has more potent weapons that could do the job.
Israel’s concern is that Iran be prevented from reaching nuclear weapons capability, not just from developing an actual device, and they worry time is running out. Israel is widely believed to possess the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor told Israel Radio the United States should not wait for Iran to decide on building a bomb before it considers military action.
Netanyahu did not repeat his harsh comments of last week that Washington had lost any “moral right” to restrain Israel because it had refused to put strict U.S. limits on Tehran.
That was followed by word that Obama would not meet Netanyahu during the Israeli leader’s U.S. visit later this month to address the United Nations - widely viewed as a snub.
Netanyahu played down the matter on Sunday, saying “our schedules on this visit didn’t work out.”
(This story added dropped word “off” in seventh paragraph)
Additional reporting by Anna Yukhanov; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Bill Trott