Dissecting the red lines on Iran

US President Barack Obama and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009. White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

As Iran gets closer to a nuclear bomb, Israel gets closer to a decision to bomb Iran, and the United States gets more worried about the latter than the former, it is useful to examine what Washington and Jerusalem mean when they talk about red lines.

Both the US and Israel insist that they cannot accept a ‘nuclear Iran’. For Washington, this means Iran not being nuclear armed. This was spelled out most clearly by President Barack Obama in an interview in this month’s Atlantic, when he said ‘it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon’.

Israel, by contrast, says the red line is Iran becoming ‘nuclear capable’.

As has become increasingly clear, there is a wide difference in these formulations. The US also used to speak of not accepting a nuclear-capable Iran. As recently as 28 February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Congressional testimony that it was US policy to stop Iran from becoming nuclear capable. She was responding to a hardline attitude popular in the US Congress. In mid-February, a group of 32 Senators, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, introduced a Senate resolution urging the president to ‘reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear weapons capability’.

As a red line, the crossing of which would entail forceful retribution, the phrase ‘nuclear capable’ is meaningless. Iran already is nuclear capable.

This capability is of a totally different nature compared with other countries, such as Japan and the Netherlands, whose robust civil nuclear industries are sometimes said to give them a latent ability to go down a weapons path. Iran, by contrast, has taken giant strides down that path and now has everything it needs to be able to manufacture a nuclear weapon. All it would take is a political decision and time.

Israel’s real red line is thus unknown, maybe even to Israel itself. Its new concept, introduced by Defence Minister Ehud Barak last year, of Iran entering a ‘zone of immunity’ is not about how and when Iran could produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) and fashion it into a weapon, but about where. Israel’s concern is that Iran’s expansion of uranium-enrichment operations at Fordow, underneath 80 metres of rock, will make those facilities immune from Israeli conventional bombing – especially as entrance tunnels and air shafts are further hardened.

Fordow may not be immune from America’s much greater firepower, and therein lies one key difference about the red lines. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worries that if he misses the chance to halt Iran’s nuclear programme while his country still has the presumed ability to do so, America cannot be relied upon to take military action if and when Iran does begin a dash for a bomb.

Obama, who says he is not bluffing about all options being ‘on the table’, worries that a pre-emptive Israeli strike would bring about the very result it was intended to prevent: rather than just building a latent capability, Iran would put the entire resources of the nation into building a bomb – and now without any international inspectors getting in the way. Why take that step and embroil the US in another war if there is still a chance to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear armed?

Top White House and Pentagon officials have repeatedly warned Israel that a pre-emptive air strike would only delay Iran’s programme for three years, at most. Among other negative consequences, they argue, an attack would be destabilising to the global economy and to the region, setting back the struggle against global jihadism.

They also insist it is unnecessary because Iran is not about to produce weapons, and the oil sanctions that the Europeans and others have applied against Iran are beginning to work. Iran is feeling the pain and has agreed to resume talks with the EU-led six parties (France, Germany, the UK and China, Russia and the US). As the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, insisted last week: ‘There is still time and space to pursue diplomacy.’


One Comment on “Dissecting the red lines on Iran”

  1. [...] Congress, wants to rule out Iranian nuclear weapons capability. This is a term so nebulous as to be devoid of meaning . Japan – an exemplary nuclear steward, which has never toyed with the IAEA – could likely put [...]

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