Red Lines, Red Zones, and Green Lights

The experiences with Pakistan, North Korea, and Syria illustrate that intelligence is not simply a technical science but a politicized process, as we have discovered in the various National Intelligence Estimates issued about Iran over the last decade.

Setting the red line at the goal line requires relying on the hope that -- at the last moment -- the president will get unambiguous evidence, with a high degree of confidence by the intelligence community, at a time when the U.S. is not preoccupied with another crisis, and that the president will be willing and ready to act immediately, without either congressional or UN authorization (since there will, by definition, be no time for that), and start a war.

The fourth reason that the president’s seemingly straightforward red line is not one at all is that placing the red line at the goal line is effectively a green light. It signals Iran that it can -- without fear of a U.S. military strike -- continue to ignore mandatory UN Security Council resolutions, refuse to comply with formal IAEA demands, fortify underground processing facilities, accumulate enriched uranium for multiple bombs, repeatedly announce its intention to eliminate a U.S. ally, and take any other actions short of (to use Clawson’s language) tightening the last screw. It provides an incentive not for Iran to stop, but to continue, until it is effectively too late.

This week at the UN, Prime Minister Netanyahu showed (literally) where a credible red line should be drawn: at a place that can be seen; can be seen in time; and can be credibly identified by intelligence agencies. It is the line that would be set by a government serious about acting to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -- because there would be no innocent reason for Iran to cross that line, and because Iran has already had years of “time and space” to resolve the issue peacefully if it wants.

Sanctions have not only failed to stop Iran’s nuclear program; they have not even produced serious talks. They reflect a sort of international “hope and change” -- a hope that a “rational” Iran will eventually change its nuclear policy in exchange for relief from non-crippling sanctions. Nothing in history suggests that such sanctions will succeed. Sanctions failed to have their intended effect on Cuba, North Korea, and Saddam’s Iraq.

Netanyahu’s message on Thursday was that if “faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down,” and that red lines “don’t lead to war; red lines prevent war.” In fact, “it’s the failure to place red lines that has often invited aggression.” He cited a lot of history to support his belief.

You would have to be color blind not to see the zone that Iran has now entered, or not to see where things will end up if the light is not changed.