JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel and the United States are in discussion on setting a “red line” for Iran’s nuclear program, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
“We’re discussing it right now with the United States,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Canada’s CBC television aired late on Sunday.
In the interview, two days after Canada suspended diplomatic relations with Tehran over its nuclear project, Netanyahu again signaled that a clear boundary - which he has yet to define publicly - could obviate the need for military action.
Netanyahu’s recent calls for world powers to set a “clear red line” that would show they were determined to stop Tehran’s nuclear drive has suggested a growing impatience with the United States, Israel’s main ally.
Washington, which has resisted the idea of laying down red lines for Iran in the past, has been pressing the Israeli leader to give diplomacy and sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic more time to work to rein in Iran’s nuclear work peacefully.
Recent heightened Israeli rhetoric has stoked speculation that Israel might attack Iran before the U.S. elections in November, believing that President Barack Obama would give it military help and not risk alienating pro-Israeli voters.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made comments, interpreted by Israeli media as rejecting Netanyahu’s call for a red line, that drew admonishment from a senior Israeli government official.
In an interview with Bloomberg Radio, Clinton was asked about Netanyahu’s demand that a red line be set and also whether she thought a time limit should be put on negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Clinton responded only to the second part of the question, saying, “We’re not setting deadlines.”
Israeli media seized on those comments as a rejection of Netanyahu’s red-line demand, which she did not mention in her answer.
The Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Without a clear red line, Iran will not cease its race towards a nuclear weapon. These statements will not stop Iran’s centrifuges from spinning.”
“Unfortunately the opposite could well be true. These statements won’t serve to deter Iran but could well put it at ease,” the official said.
But Netanyahu has faced opposition to any go-it-alone attack from Israeli security chiefs and its popular president, Shimon Peres. Opinion polls show a majority of Israelis do not want their military to strike Iran without U.S. support.
“I don’t think that they (Iran) see a clear red line, and I think the sooner we establish one, the greater the chances that there won’t be a need for other types of action,” Netanyahu said, appearing to refer to military steps.
“If Iran saw that, there’s a chance, I won’t say it’s guaranteed, but there’s a chance they might pause before they cross that line.”
Israel and the West believe Iran is working toward nuclear weapon development capability. Israel, widely thought to be the Middle East’s only atomic power, says a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its existence. The Islamic Republic says its nuclear work is for peaceful energy purposes only.
A senior Israeli government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said talks were being held with “the American administration,” as to the red lines. He declined to elaborate.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz said on Monday Netanyahu had told German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle that if Iran enriched uranium above 20 percent, that would provide a red line as it would prove Tehran had chosen to exceed the level of refinement suitable for civilian energy and “break out” with an atom bomb.
Enrichment to 90 percent fissile purity is the typical threshold for weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Haaretz said Netanyahu stressed that from the moment Iran decided to make a nuclear bomb, it would need only six weeks to enrich to 90 percent.
Many independent analysts say, however, that Iran would need additional time - from several months to a year or more - to fashion weapons-grade material into a nuclear warhead and fit onto a missile capable of delivering the payload.
Netanyahu, who met Westerwelle on Sunday in Jerusalem, is scheduled to travel to the New York and address the U.N. General assembly about Iran later this month.
A meeting with Obama, who is deep in his re-election campaign and due to speak to the forum two days before Netanyahu arrives, has not been finalized, the Israeli official said.
Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Michael Roddy