Reading Between the Red Lines

It is a rare moment when a major world leader uses a squeaky red marker and a cartoon bomb to illustrate his point about international security. Addressing the UN General Assembly last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the United States to set “a clear red line” on Iran’s nuclear ambition.

Image courtesy African Renewal, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Mr. Netanyahu drew his red line at the point where Iran obtains 90% of the enriched uranium required for an atomic bomb, which he claims will happen by next summer.1 It was his latest attempt to convince the United States to consider military intervention and adopt Israel’s specific benchmarks against the Iranian programme. President Obama ought to take a more realistic approach to dealing with Iran, but drawing red lines is a tactic that will ultimately escalate the bombastic rhetoric of both Israel and Iran to levels that threaten international security even more than Iran’s nuclear programme itself.

Rhetoric, after all, has fueled the conflict from the very start. With the end of the Cold War and Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War of 1991, Israel and Iran both sought geopolitical preeminence in a region that lacked any defined leader. But rather than cast their newfound conflict as such, the two countries framed it in terms of an ideological clash of civilizations.2 By portraying Iran as irrational, belligerent, and run by “mad mullahs” seeking nuclear weapons and lacking the sensibility not to use them, Israel could guarantee the backing of Western states that now saw its situation as a struggle for survival. And by embracing its role as the enemy of Israel and the friend of Palestine, Iran gained implicit support from Arabs across the region, whose states could not repudiate its growing sphere of influence so long as that influence was directly tied to the cause of Islam. To see why red lines cannot end the institutionalised enmity between Israel and Iran, one must understand that Iran’s nuclear programme is the result, not the cause, of the Middle East’s lack of a regional hierarchy or any stable balance of power.

The greatest obstacle to peace with Iran has always been rhetoric and ideology. In 2003, after the United States toppled the regimes of Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran presented the Bush administration with an unprompted offer it could not refuse. The proposal was a checklist of just about everything the West could ever want from Iran: promises to end its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, to sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol and to subject its nuclear programme to intense scrutiny from the IAEA, to cooperate in the fight against all terrorist organisations, including al-Qaeda, and even to take substantive steps towards peace with Israel. In exchange, Iran primarily wanted an end to all US sanctions, acceptance of “Iran’s right to full access to nuclear, biological, and chemical technology,” and recognition of its “legitimate security interests” in the Middle East. Most of all, it wanted “mutual respect.” Even if the details were more than a little tricky, this was a series of formal concessions that, after rigorous negotiation, might have ended the conflict once and for all. But without even considering the proposal or weighing its options, the Bush administration responded by asserting, “We don’t speak to evil.”3 Subsequent dealings between the two, however, indicate otherwise.

Israel still subscribes to the view that it is waging a war of good versus evil, and its strategy and rhetoric reflect this. What’s so dangerous about Mr Netanyahu’s rhetoric, however, is that he is demanding assurances in a situation where no country involved can afford to guarantee anything. He argues that sanctions have had their day, that diplomacy is a pretense for dramatic concessions from Iran, and that the military option is his country’s best hope of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. If only Mr Obama were to agree to Mr Netanyahu’s red line, the argument goes, then either Iran would be deterred from reaching the 90% threshold or Israel would follow up its deterrence with a military strike that could decimate Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

There are a variety of critical errors in Mr Netanyahu’s analysis. The worst is his reliance on the military option. Any Israeli military action against Iran would be ineffective, even with support from the United States.  Unlike Israel’s previous air strikes on its enemies’ nuclear facilities, namely against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, Iran’s facilities are spread out across the country, and at least one, an enrichment facility at Fordow, is underground and believed to be impenetrable to a bombing campaign from Israel. A slightly more effective option would be for Israel to send a commando raid to physically invade enrichment facilities such as Fordow, perhaps in concert with an air strike, although this tactic has a far higher chance of error.4 Every option allows for an unknown amount of uranium to remain, and there is no way for Israel to erase Iran’s knowledge of enrichment and weapons development forever. Even more alarmingly, if Israel were to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran would almost certainly drop out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires the regular observance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This scenario would inevitably create an Iran more greatly determined than ever to construct a nuclear weapon and use it.

Of course, the military option can never be taken off the table, but Mr Netanyahu’s red line proposal would keep it on the table permanently. So long as other options exist, the United States must reject Mr Netanyahu’s arbitrary red line and adhere to Mr Obama’s policy that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”5 This is an achievable goal that would probably result in Iran developing the “breakout capacity” to build or test a nuclear weapon without actually constructing one.6 Israel, however, would remain unsatisfied with such an outcome, in which case its subterfuge, sabotage, or preemptive military action would destabilise international security and guarantee a nuclear Iran.

Mr Netanyahu’s red marker and cartoon bomb certainly simplified the Iranian nuclear problem for the casual viewer, but it was a drastic oversimplification of the crisis. No amount of theatrical threats or military machismo will deter Iran from building up its nuclear programme, simply because it has rationally built up its program as a deterrent to Israel’s geopolitical superiority. In order to resolve the situation, the United States must address this complex question with an equally sophisticated answer. It must work to marginalise the military option, reignite the push for diplomacy backed by sanctions, and tame the harsh rhetoric from both sides that has defined the Israel-Iran conflict for decades. The United States has at last escaped its rhetoric by recognising that it is not speaking to evil, but it must not allow Israel’s rhetoric to keep it from speaking to Iran at all.


1 “Israel’s Netanyahu Urges ‘red Line’ over Nuclear Iran.” BBC News. BBC, 27 Sept. 2012. Web.
2 Parsi, Trita. Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Pages 2-4. Print.
3 Parsi, Trita. A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012. Pages 1-5. Print.
4 Perry, Mark. “Foreign Policy Magazine.” Foreign Policy. 27 Sept. 2012. Web.
5 Lindsay, James M. “Council on Foreign Relations.” Council on Foreign Relations. 25 Sept. 2012. Web.
6 Waltz, Kenneth N. “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.” Foreign Affairs. N.p., July-Aug. 2012. Web.

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