By Isabel Kershner and Rick Gladstone
JERUSALEM â€” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel harshly criticized the Obama administration on Tuesday over recent statements that the United States would not set deadlines or draw â€œred linesâ€ for Iran over its disputed uranium enrichment activities, calling such comments a signal to the Iranians that they could build atomic bombs with impunity.
Mr. Netanyahuâ€™s remarks laid bare the underlying tensions between the United States and Israel over how to deal with Iran, and they threatened to elevate the Iranian uranium enrichment program as a virulent campaign issue less than two months before the American presidential election.
Mr. Netanyahuâ€™s remarks were among the strongest he has made over the Iranian enrichment activities, which the Israelis have repeatedly called part of a clandestine Iranian plan to build nuclear weapons despite Tehranâ€™s denials. Mr. Netanyahuâ€™s government, which considers Iran to be Israelâ€™s most dangerous enemy, has threatened to bomb suspected Iranian enrichment sites.
He appeared to be reacting on Tuesday in particular to an assertion by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in an interview with Bloomberg Radio on Sunday in which Mrs. Clinton was asked if the administration would articulate explicit consequences for Iranâ€™s refusal to halt its enrichment program, as the United Nations Security Council has repeatedly requested. Mrs. Clinton said â€œweâ€™re not setting deadlines.â€
On Monday, the State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, reiterated President Obamaâ€™s commitment not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons and said â€œit is not useful to be parsing it, to be setting deadlines one way or the other, red lines.â€
Addressing reporters here in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu unequivocally rejected those comments and slapped back at the United States. Speaking in English, he said, â€œThe world tells Israel: â€˜Wait, thereâ€™s still time.â€™ And I say, â€˜Wait for what? Wait until when?â€™ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran donâ€™t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.â€
In his remarks, made at a joint news conference with the visiting prime minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov, Mr. Netanyahu also said: â€œNow if Iran knows that there is no red line, if Iran knows that there is no deadline, what will it do? Exactly what itâ€™s doing. Itâ€™s continuing, without any interference, toward obtaining nuclear weapons capability and from there, nuclear bombs.â€
He criticized the litany of economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union as ineffective in stopping the enrichment program. â€œThe fact is that every day that passes, Iran gets closer and closer to nuclear bombs,â€ Mr. Netanyahu said.
Mr. Netanyahu has said that Israel and the United States were in talks on setting what he has called a â€œclear red lineâ€™ for when Iranâ€™s nuclear program surpasses a threshold of tolerance that would be met with a military response. But Obama administration officials have been more circumspect about those talks, and Mrs. Clintonâ€™s comments on Sunday appeared to contradict Mr. Netanyahu.
The Israelis first signaled their displeasure over the American comments on Monday. An Israeli government official, who was not authorized to respond publicly to Mrs. Clinton, said: â€œwithout a clear red line Iran will not cease its race toward a nuclear weapon. These statements will not stop Iranâ€™s centrifuges from spinning. Unfortunately the opposite could be true.â€
Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, echoed those comments in an interview in Washington on Monday night, asserting that the Israeli leadership wanted Mr. Obama and the international community to set clear â€œred linesâ€ for Iran. â€œWe know that the Iranians see red,â€ Mr. Oren said. â€œWe know they can discern the color red. We know that the redder the line, the lesser the chance that they will pass it.â€
The Israeli governmentâ€™s worries about Iran were further elevated last month when the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear monitor of the United Nations, reported that Iran had sharply increased its capacity to enrich uranium with centrifuges assembled at a subterranean site in the holy Iranian city of Qum. The site may be impervious to a bombing attack because it is so deep underground.
Israel has not publicly specified what its red lines should be, and there may not be one single view.
Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a research institute, and a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview last week that â€œIt is very important to draw a line about the quantities of enriched uranium and the levels of enrichment.â€
In general, for Israel, the red line would be Iran achieving the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack. But Israeli officials have long said that the Israeli and American â€œclocksâ€ tick at a different pace on Iran. The United States, for example, could wait longer to launch an attack and could have a deeper reach because of its superior military capabilities.
Israeli experts say that for Israel, all the previous red lines have been crossed already and that setting more lines might be meaningless, because international intelligence agencies may not know immediately if Iran has overstepped them.
Some Israeli analysts view Mr. Netanyahuâ€™s demand for clear red lines more as a face-saving device to allow him to back down from his belligerent rhetoric, since he does not appear to have the support in Israel or abroad for a unilateral and uncoordinated attack on Iran.
The rhetoric, in turn, is seen by many experts here as a means of pressuring the international powers into taking action against Iran rather than as an indication of real Israeli intentions.
In another indication of the fraught diplomacy between Israel and the Obama administration in the heated period before the presidential election, Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, reported â€œa very sharp exchangeâ€ between Mr. Netanyahu and the American ambassador in Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro, during a meeting in Jerusalem on Aug. 24 in which Mr. Rogers participated.
Mr. Rogers told WJR, a Michigan radio station, that â€œIt was very, very clear the Israelis had lost their patience with the administrationâ€ over its policy on Iran.
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington.