UNITED NATIONS — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned world leaders Thursday that Iran could make a nuclear weapon by spring, and called on them to draw a “red line” to stop the Islamic regime.
“At this late hour, there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs, and that’s by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” Mr. Netanyahu said in his address to the U.N.General Assembly. “To be credible, a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of [Iran’s] program: on Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.”
The Israeli leader met Thursday evening to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has taken the lead for the Obama administration in connecting face-to-face with Middle East leaders after widespread anti-U.S. demonstrations swept the region.
The meeting comes amid heightened concern in Washington about the possibility that Israel is preparing a pre-emptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. The U.S. has urged restraint to allow international sanctions against Iran’s oil industry enough time cripple the Iranian economy and change the regime’s behavior.
In his General Assembly address, Mr. Netanyahu used a poster-board diagram of a bomb to show that Iran is 70 percent of the way toward constructing a nuclear weapon.
“Now they are well into the second stage; and 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,” the Israeli leader said. “From there, it is only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”
Iran repeatedly has said that its nuclear program is geared toward peaceful purposes like medicine and electric power, but it has blocked international inspections of its sites.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the world body Wednesday, and complained of a “double standard” on the issue. Israel is thought to have a sizable atomic arsenal.
President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu have had a frosty relationship, which has been strained by the Israeli leader’s insistence that the White House establish clear limits on Iran’s nuclear program, which, if breached, would precipitate military action.
Mr. Obama, who has been criticized for not meeting Mr. Netanyahu during the General Assembly session, is likely to phone the Israeli leader on Friday, the White House said.
“I expect the president will have a follow-up phone call with the prime minister probably Friday,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.
While past U.S. presidential election years have seen incumbents from both sides of the aisle avoid the hectic schedule — and sensitive politics — associated with such high-level U.N. meetings, Mr. Obama has faced harsh criticism for opting to avoid them this week.
In his place, Mrs. Clinton has met with, among others, Presidents Mohammed Morsi of Egypt, Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Mohammed el-Megaref of Libya — three nations in which the anti-U.S. demonstrations against the film denigrating Islam’s Prophet Muhammad were the fiercest.
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Netanyahu met one-on-one for about 75 minutes.
“It was an open, wide-ranging constructive conversation,” a senior State Department official told reporters on the condition of anonymity. “They had an in-depth discussion on Iran, and reaffirmed that the United States and Israel share the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Netanyahu agreed to “continue our close consultation and cooperation toward achieving that goal,” the official added.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has called Mr. Obama’s decision not to meet Mr. Netanyahu an “extraordinarily confusing and troubling” act. The White House explained that the meeting was not possible because the two leaders were not in New York at the same time.
In his U.N. speech, Mr. Netanyahu cited history to make the case for setting limits on Iran’s nuclear program, saying Western powers could have averted World War II in 1939 if they had drawn red lines on Nazi aggression.
Western opponents of Adolf Hitler’s regime waited too long to act, he said.
“In the end they triumphed, but in a horrific cost,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “We cannot let that happen again.”
Mr. Netanyahu said he thinks Iran would back down if faced with a clear red line.
“It’s the failure to place red lines that has often invited aggression,” he said. “Red lines don’t lead to war. Red lines prevent war.”
A nuclear-armed Iran would be no more acceptable than a nuclear-armed al Qaeda, he added.
But Michelle Flournoy, a former undersecretary for defense policy at the Pentagon who now is advising the Obama re-election campaign, said Thursday that the administration has “laid out a red line, and that is Iran cannot actually get a weapon.”
“We’ve had extensive, intensive talks with the Israelis,” Mrs. Flournoy said. “There’s no light between us on the intelligence picture. There’s no light between us on the policy objective.”
Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat because of the Islamic republic’s repeated calls for the Jewish state’s destruction and Tehran’s support for Islamist militant groups, such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which have sought to destroy Israel.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, confirmed Mr. Netanyahu’s prediction that Iran will have enough partially enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon by as early as next spring.
“What’s clear is that Iran’s nuclear red line will occur long before Iran’s economic-cripple date, when the regime faces imminent economic collapse as a result of sanctions,” said Mr. Dubowitz. “That is the uncomfortable conclusion that the Obama administration faces: Iranian nuclear physics is beating western economic pressure.”
‘Who’d be safe’
Mr. Netanyahu noted that the Iranian regime crushed mass protests by its own people in 2009 and is helping Syria’s regime crackdown on protest. Iran has spread its terrorist network to two dozen countries across five continents and plotted to blow up a restaurant a few blocks from the White House, he said.
“Given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons. … Who among you would feel safe in the Middle East? Who’d be safe in Europe? Who’d be safe in America? Who’d be safe anywhere?” Mr. Netanyahu added.
Speaking after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of waging a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu said “libelous speeches at the U.N.” will not solve conflicts.”
Peace will come only with a “demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the one and only Jewish state,” he said.
Mr. Netanyahu opened his address by making the case for the historical right of the Jewish people to exist in the Middle East. “The Jewish people have come home. We will never be uprooted again,” he said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Ahmadinejad said Israel’s right to exist is not rooted in history and referred to the Israeli government as “fake.”
Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu last spoke by phone on Sept. 11. That call was hastily arranged after Mr. Netanyahu’s thinly veiled criticism of Mr. Obama for not taking a tougher position on Iran.
The White House said after that hourlong phone conversation that the two leaders “reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and agreed to continue their close consultations going forward.”
• Guy Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.