Red Lines, Red Zones, and Green Lights

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to the UN should be evaluated in light of the new report issued this week by the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, authored by Patrick Clawson and David Makovsky and titled “Preventing an Iranian Nuclear Breakout: U.S.-Israel Coordination.” At a policy forum held to discuss the report, Clawson explained why President Obama’s policy to “prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon” is one that “sounds like a straightforward redline … [b]ut it is not.”

Clawson gave three reasons, but there is actually a fourth one, even more persuasive. Here are the three reasons Clawson gave:

First, ambiguity. Iran could imitate its neighbor Pakistan by producing all the parts for a nuclear weapon -- indeed, for several such weapons -- and almost entirely assembling them. Yet because the last screw had not been tightened, the U.S. government certified to Congress each year that Pakistan did not have a nuclear weapon … In Iran’s case, it is possible a U.S. president would find it so inconvenient to say Iran had nuclear weapons that he would use a lawyerly subterfuge to evade an unpleasant truth.

Second, uncertainty. … [T]he intelligence community is going to be very cautious about stating with high confidence Iran has a nuclear weapon. The I.C. will search for every possible alternative explanation of whatever it has found, because it will want to avoid sending yet another president off to war on the basis of wrong information. …

Third, preoccupation. … Iran can wait to cross the nuclear threshold at a propitious moment, such as when the world is preoccupied elsewhere or when Iran’s help is needed with some other international problem. … No matter how much the president may be determined to stop Iran from going nuclear, if he is preoccupied when Iran goes for a breakout, he may have to hold off.

Let’s remember that in 2007, Israel brought unmistakable evidence to the White House that North Korea was assisting Syria in building an undeclared nuclear plant, and asked the U.S. to strike it -- a military action President Bush wrote in his memoir would have been “no sweat.” Vice President Cheney believed a U.S. strike would send a signal not only to Syria and North Korea, but also to Iran, that the U.S. was serious about its warnings against nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist states, and that they faced the possibility of military action if diplomacy failed. But Bush decided he could not strike, because the U.S. intelligence community certified only a “low degree of confidence” that Syria had a nuclear weapons program.

Let’s also remember that in 2011 the director of national intelligence for the Obama administration reported that “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so” -- and then in 2012 the DNI, citing the same evidence cited the year before, reported that “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” The 2012 assessment apparently reflected a revised intelligence judgment, rather than new evidence -- showing that once a nuclear weapons capability is achieved, the decision to move to actual production is made in secret, and discovered (like the Iranian underground facility at Qom) after the fact.