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Despite What the Obama Administration Says, Red Lines Are Helpful

Despite What the Obama Administration Says, Red Lines Are Helpful

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to New York to address the UN General Assembly, he had one goal in mind - to reinforce to the international community, and especially to the Obama Administration, that red lines addressing Iran’s Nuclear weapons program must be established. Netanyahu said:

Red lines don’t lead to war; red lines prevent war. Look at NATO’s charter: it made clear that an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on all.  NATO’s red line helped keep the peace in Europe for nearly half a century. President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That red line also prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades. In fact, it’s the failure to place red lines that has often invited aggression.

Netanyahu proposed setting the red line before Iran completed the second stage of nuclear enrichment, reaching a level of medium enriched Uranium (MEU) suitable for a nuclear weapon. This is a stage they are expected to reach, “[b]y next spring, at most by next summer.”

For their part, the Obama Administration has stated that red lines are “unhelpful.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta went so far as to say, “Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner.” Needless to say, he was NOT referring to putting Iran in a corner.

For some time the stated belief of the Obama Administration has been that Iran remains “undecided” on whether to pursue a nuclear weapon.

Ignore for a moment all the evidence that Iran has long ago decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. This includes its construction of heavily fortified underground reactors. It also includes the statement of an advisor close to Ayatollah Khameinei who said in June that a “nuclear bomb is our right.” The IAEA report in 2011 that indicated that Iran’s program encompasses, “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”   And the 2012 report where the IAEA expressed concerns about Iranian efforts to conduct a cover up of nuclear weapon research at Parchin.

Leaving all that aside and operating purely from a logical standpoint, the Administration’s position is self-contradictory.

Red lines are helpful when a country has not made a firm decision to take an action and substantially fears the threatened consequences of taking that action. One might argue credibly that red lines are not helpful here because the Iranian decision to develop nuclear weapons has already been made and they are unlikely to be deterred. But reasonably, either red lines ARE helpful, or else Iran has already decided to build a nuclear weapon regardless of the consequences and so cannot be deterred.

So why is the Obama Administration so opposed to a red line?

The real reason the Obama Administration has rejected implementing a red line on the Iranian program is that despite their claims to the contrary, they seem to fully expect Iran will cross any red line, and they have no intention of enforcing one. For the Obama Administration a red line would be a bluff.

The Obama Administration’s assessment that Iran effectively cannot be deterred is most likely accurate. After all, even prior to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s literal “drawing of the red line,” the Iranians had already declared, in numerous venues, that they intend to enrich to 90% weapons-grade levels, allegedly for use in nuclear submarines, a patently ridiculous cover story.

Now it should be recognized that the Obama Administration has stated several times that military action is not “off the table” and that Iran “will not be allowed” to acquire nuclear weapons.

Why then do these statements ring hollow?

In large part, they ring hollow because of the appearance that the U.S. is more concerned with preventing or delaying Israeli action against Iran then they are in preventing an Iranian bomb. Evidence for this includes the reports that the U.S. had reassured Iran that if Israel launched a strike it would be on its own, followed by the remarks of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey that the U.S. did not wish to be “complicit” in an Israeli strike. Additionally there were leaks intended to undermine Israeli strike options, including leaks over possible basing options in Azerbaijan and Iraqi Kurdistan, anonymous reports intended to undermine confidence in the capability of an Israeli strike, and claims by Obama friendly experts that, “Israel launching a unilateral attack is almost as bad as allowing Tehran to continue its nuclear work unchallenged.”

Put aside for a moment the morally questionable nature of a remark which presupposes that preemptive action by a U.S. ally would be “as bad” as allowing a self-declared enemy of the United States, which has actively murdered Americans in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, plotted terrorist attacks even in Washington D.C., and openly engaged in incitement to genocide, to acquire nuclear weapons.

Presuppose instead that on a purely strategic level this is true. That an Iran which has had its nuclear program set back by Israel perhaps a year or two, if that, and which retaliates broadly throughout the region is somehow more dangerous than an Iran that may pursue the same agenda, only under the cover of nuclear weapons.

Openly and repeatedly promoting the idea, as the Obama Administration has done, through back channels, leaks and media interviews, can only serve as an inducement to the Iranian regime and its proxies to continue their behavior, and indeed to turn up their rhetoric, as has happened  in recent months.

One of the great difficulties of understanding the Obama Administration’s foreign affairs is that their actual policies are frequently at odds with their stated desires. They state that Iran will “not be permitted” to have a nuclear weapon, while their policies signal that nothing will be done to prevent it. They indicate their belief that a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran would be a disaster, yet their rhetoric makes almost certain that Israel will feel compelled to act alone.

This dichotomy between the administration’s stated desires and the logical outcome of their actions creates a dangerous credibility problem. America’s allies are left adrift, and the Iranian enemy is emboldened. Creating a red line, as Prime Minister Netanyahu suggests, would be a step towards restoring credibility.

It’s true that it is most likely that the Iranians will drive forward towards the red line heedless of the consequences. A nuclear weapon is the center piece of their strategy for regional hegemony and their leadership of the anti-American revolutionary bloc. But at the very least a red line reestablishes American leadership, and shores up America’s alliances in regard to the Iranian threat. It puts the administration’s rhetoric and its actions in line, and makes clear that should military action be required, the onus for the conflict rests on the shoulders of the Iranian Regime.

All of which would be quite helpful indeed.

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Kyle Shideler

Kyle Shideler

Kyle Shideler is the director and senior analyst for homeland security and counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy.