Will the Iran Negotiations Be Too Big to Fail?

On February 29, Secretary of State Clinton assured the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- in absolute terms, three separate times – the Obama administration’s policy was not simply to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but a nuclear weapons capability.  She assured Howard Berman (D-CA) “it's absolutely clear that the president's policy is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability.” She reiterated the policy to Eliot Engel (D-NY), and reiterated it again to Gary Ackerman (D-NY).

The “absolutely clear” policy lasted until the White House could get a hold of the New York Times. On March 2, unnamed “administration officials” told the New York Times that Clinton had “misspoken.”

The same day as the Times report, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg posted the transcript of his interview with the president, in which Obama repeatedly phrased his policy as preventing Iran from “getting a nuclear weapon.” At AIPAC, Obama used the same formulation: “obtaining a nuclear weapon.” At various times in the past, Obama has phrased his position as preventing Iran from “getting,” “obtaining,” “acquiring,” or “deploying” a nuclear weapon. Each verb connotes a policy that makes actual acquisition the red line, rather than a nuclear weapons capability.

The significance of the “capability” versus “acquisition” issue is that it impacts the timing of a U.S. military response. The administration argues that Iran is “rational” (in Gen. Dempsey’s view) and “self-interested” (as Obama told Goldberg), and that sanctions will thus eventually work. On the other hand, Israel believes Iran is already approaching a nuclear weapons capability, and building underground facilities impervious to Israeli attack, fundamentally changing the strategic and security situation even if the bomb is not manufactured until later. In Israel’s view, even if sanctions might arguably work -- which is speculative -- the time for them to work is running out.

Thus Israel believes the U.S. red line has been set at a point that will not be reached until it is too late for Israel to act. That would leave Israel dependent on a future decision by a U.S. president to go to war -- based on a pledge to use “all options” that is (as Secretary Clinton would say) “unenforceable.” According to the Washington Post, a “senior administration official” said after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, “Our red line is a nuclear weapon, and we didn’t change our policy” -- which means the administration did not change its timing, leaving the U.S. red line at a point beyond Israel’s ability to strike.

The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials said a red line of nuclear weapons “capability” would be too ambiguous. But the difference between (1) a red line set far down the field (indeed right next to the goal line), and (2) an ambiguous red line set at an earlier point, is that the former effectively incentivizes Iran to continue marching down the field, whereas the latter would make Iran nervous now, rather than later.

If faced only with the first alternative, a rational and self-interested Iran will likely decide to continue its present course, perhaps negotiating a “framework agreement” or a “joint statement” of principles that will later break down, and eventually present the U.S. with a fait accompli -- which is exactly what happened with respect to North Korea.