Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made headlines last month with this question: What are the U.S. red lines when it comes to Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program?
The two presidential campaigns are offering two different answers.
“Recently, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have talked about weaponization and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan talk about nuclear weapons capability,” said Michael Makovsky, a Bush administration Pentagon official who now directs the National Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
So what do the terms weaponization and capability mean as red lines?
The issue of red lines was lent urgency on Sept. 11, when at a blistering news conference, Netanyahu seemed to warn that a failure to set red lines for Iran could trigger a strike by Israel -- an action the Obama administration has tried mightily to prevent.
“Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” Netanyahu said at the time. The term “red lines” refers to actions that could trigger military action to stop Iran from progressing further.
In the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate, the differences between the two U.S. presidential tickets on the Iranian nuclear issue were apparent.
Ryan, Romney’s running mate on the Republican Party ticket, cast the Iranian threat as one predicated on the degree of its enrichment.
“We cannot allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapons capability,” Ryan said, using a threshold that Romney has embraced. The Netanyahu government has long employed the term "capability" to define a bridge too far in Iran's nuclear program, and the term has been picked up in a number of recent bipartisan congressional measures.
“Now let’s take a look at where we’ve gone -- come from. When Barack Obama was elected, they had enough fissile material -- nuclear material to make one bomb,” the Wisconsin congressman continued. “Now they have enough for five. They’re racing toward a nuclear weapon. They’re four years closer toward a nuclear weapons capability.”
Biden pushed back, seeming to suggest that the proper measure should be how close Iran is to achieving a weapon.
“When my friend talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up, then they have to be able to have something to put it in,” Biden said. “There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know -- we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon.”
But Israeli officials repeatedly have expressed the concern that Western intelligence agencies have failed to detect weaponization in time in the cases of Pakistan, India and North Korea.
Makovsky said the problem was especially acute in Iran because the regime there, which denies an interest in building a nuclear weapon, has denied access to inspectors at key sites.
“It's a very hard thing to know, and we haven’t been able to detect it before,” he said.
The question is whether enrichment defines ”capability,” and if so, at what level of enrichment is a country nuclear-capable.
The Iranians, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, already have achieved enrichment up to 20 percent -- the level cited by Biden. Israel’s concern, outlined last month by Netanyahu in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, is when they will get to the “and up” mentioned by the U.S. vice president.
Uranium is weapons-capable when it is enriched to above 90 percent.
“By next spring, next summer at most,” Iran will have finished the “medium enrichment” stage, Netanyahu said. “From there it’s less than a few months, possibly a few weeks, until they get enough uranium for an enriched bomb. The relevant question is not when will Iran get the bomb; the question is at what stage can we stop Iran?”
Michael Adler, an Iran expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, said that Netanyahu effectively aligned himself with the Obama administration’s red line with that speech.
“Netanyahu has walked capability back a lot saying it won't come until next year,” Adler said.
That may have been in part because Netanyahu and Obama had spoken extensively between Netanyahu’s Sept. 11 news conference and his U.N. speech. U.S. and Israeli officials have said subsequently that the two leaders better understood each other on the Iran issue.
Ryan in the debate appeared to agree that the timeline had been extended beyond even the spring deadline outlined by Netanyahu.
“We can debate the timeline, whether there’s -- it’s that short a time or longer. I agree that it’s probably longer,” he said.
Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, which often consults with the Pentagon, said Western intelligence and IAEA inspectors should be able to detect increased enrichment.
"Iran hasn't really approached the point where it can sprint toward nuclear capability undetected," he said.