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.
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.