Image Credit: Office of the Prime Minister: Israel

"Red Lines" On Iran: Not So Black and White


More than ever, the idiom of war triggering “red lines” is central to debates about U.S. foreign policy. Over the past week, President Obama has been accused of ignoring or shifting his articulated red line regarding Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons. During a March visit to Israel, President Barack Obama even cracked a joke on the issue, as he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed a strip of red paint on the tarmac at the airport: “He’s always talking to me about red lines.”

According to Harvard professor Graham Allison, Iran is said to have crossed no less than seven such red lines set by the United States and Israel over the past fifteen years – without provoking a military conflict. In September of last year, Netanyahu struck out at the United States’ perceived unwillingness to enforce these lines, arguing that “those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”

In a new paper, Iran: Red Lines and Grey Areas, just released by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), my colleague Hugh Chalmers and I argue that, despite Netanyahu’s loquaciousness on the subject, our understanding of red lines remains basic. We argue that the proliferation of red lines for different audiences and different purposes risks creating confusion, above all in Tehran. Moreover, the existing American and Israeli red lines both contain areas of unacknowledged ambiguity with regard to where, exactly, the line lies. With the risk of misperception comes the risk of a conflict that neither side wants. These problems have no clean solutions, but it is important to understand the dilemmas faced by policymakers.

What is a red line?

At their most basic, red lines refer to steps identified as being so much more worrying than anything that came before, that some action is necessary. That action can be war, sanctions, or a lesser response. More importantly, red lines can also be drawn for different audiences. They can be directed at the targeted state (in this case Iran) as instruments of deterrence – but also at a domestic constituency (say, political rivals) or an ally, with the intention of persuading or embarrassing them into doing something, or creating a sense of urgency.

It is not always easy to distinguish between different types of red lines, and the confusion between them can be problematic. For instance, in 2005 then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon noted that “the red line is [Iran] being able to overcome some technical problems they are having.” Iran did indeed overcome those problems, but it did not trigger war. Why?

For one thing, the red line might have triggered other responses. Indeed, the earliest known version of the Stuxnet worm, aimed at Iran’s nascent enrichment plant, began development around that time. Moreover, Sharon’s audience might have not been Iran, but the United States. After all, one of Sharon’s successors, Netanyahu, has used red lines as part of rhetorical and political competition with his intelligence services, cabinet rivals, and allies – many of which dissent from his view of the Iranian threat.

May 8, 2013 at 23:20

Yep, regime change is the United States specialty. If your country does not have nukes, be prepared for a regime change anytime soon.

May 7, 2013 at 23:21

I tend to agree with the article’s main points.  Red lines are a bad idea in this case. Diplomacy carried out privately will produce better results.

More generally the application of normal logic and normal set theory to these types of problems (from which the concept of red line originates) is fundamentally incorrect. It is like setting a red line to determine when a person should be classified as tall. The concept of fuzzy set theory and fuzzy logic (ironically invented by an Iranian Ali Lotfi Zadeh”) would be more appropriate when it comes to these.

Moreover the realities on the ground do not support the need for any form of red line. The Iranians are a signatory to the NPT and have abided by its original terms so far. Both the founding member of the Islamic Republic and its present leader have issued religious ruling against the development and/or deployment of WMDs. And as of now not a single nanogram of weapons grade fissile material has been found.

There is simply no independently verifiable evidence to indicate an Iranians have anything other than a civilian nuclear program (allowed by NPT).


As for all the talk of nuclear weapons production capability which the Iranians will have soon (or do have), that is again nonsense.

The fact is that any nation with a well developed civilian nuclear industry can produce nuclear weapons if they really wanted to.

Also the threat war is foolish. A war against Iran is unlikely to be successful and would be disasterous for the west and NATO but especially for Israel.

There is also a great deal of political spin replacing policy and propaganda replacing intelligence in the west. Take the 20% enriched Uranium that Iran has as an example.

Israel is claiming its accumulation to be red line. In reality the Iranians need it to produce medical Isotopes (in short supply globally) and some of it has already been used for that purpose. The Iranians did agree a while back to a Turkish plan which would have taken their entire stockpile out of the country and would have converted it to fuel rods for their reactor all under IAEA’s monitoring. The west said no!

 So the Iranians started making their own fuel rods. Indeed their present nuclear policies are a carbon copy of that drawn up by the west before the revolution for the Late Shah.

The Iranians (who have economically viable nuclear deposits) started on the path of full nuclear fuel cycle after they became convinced that the west would effectively block their right under NPT to get it from any other country.

The US is using the nuclear card as an excuse to attempt a regime change in Iran. This will in all likelihood fail.

What is required is quiet private diplomacy and confidence building on both sides and abandonment of the sanction/military strike policy of the west which has been failing for that past 34 years.

May 7, 2013 at 22:24

I agree with you. The history of US – Iran relations since the revolution is that of missed opportunities. The US policies vis-à-vis Iran have been in a state of continuous failure for over 34 years and yet there is no sign that the present administration is going to change any of that.

Wim Roffel
May 7, 2013 at 18:40

There are two problems with "red lines" for Iran:

 - a red line is a very impolite way of formulating a policy. On the receiving side it looks like bullying and intimidation. And everyone knows that when you give in to intimidation more will follow.

 - the only alternative that the US and Israel have is war – a very destructive and costly alternative with unforeseeable side effects. With its rabid sanction policies and regime change policies the US has wasted the opportunity to influence Iran on a more subtle level. Remember that the US sanction laws stipulate that they only can be withdrawn after regime chance.

May 6, 2013 at 23:16

Congratulations Mr. Shashank Joshi! A well written article.

May 4, 2013 at 16:09

2005 the fact Iran had US soldiers as human shields bogged down in Iraq as Iran raced to develop a nuclear bomb. So dual goals delay Iran from developing the bomb and conduct a strategic withdrawal from both Iraq and Afghanistan, while achieving strategic success. Remebering that Iran are trying to prevent you from doing both. 2005 was when Qum was discovered. Because the Israeli's are going to bomb Iran. And whatever the response from Iran, you apply risk management, to limit the risk and capability of the response.

May 4, 2013 at 09:41

The major problem with "red lines" is that the environment in whcih they are being used has changed.  Once upon a time a red line was something someone with the means, will, and intent to enforce it issued.  The recipient was typically someone who knew they were outclassed and/or unable to contest the will of the issuing party.

Today, however, the limits of fiat diplomacy have been more clearly defined than at any other time in the past.  When small insurgent groups can hold off the world's sole superpower, the red lines issued come to lack legitimacy.  It is not that our red lines are becoming ambiguous, it's that everyone knows that threats of force are meaningless when issued by powers at the end of their tether.

The air campaign in Libya cost the United States roughly $1 billion and that was without any ground invasion or significant loss of American military personnel.  It was, by comparison with other American military operations, a cheap one.  The cost, however, is one that even the US can ill afford in the wake of the trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Israel faces similar image problems given their relatively poor showing in Lebanon in 2006.  If a non-state actor can hold its own against the vaunted IDF for weeks without any sign of breaking, what expectation does Israel have of its ultimatums being taken seriously?  

The ambiguity of various red line statements comes not from a lack of coherent policy amongst Israeli and American leaders.  Desperation is the key factor at play here since both nations, having grown accustomed to having their word carry the weight of actions in the past, do not know how to behave when someone simply tells them "no."

Our foreign policy needs to accept the current state of world affairs and we must adjust our words and deeds accordingly.  We should say what we mean, mean what we say, and only say what we are capable of.  We are less like the boy who cried wolf and more like the emperor with his new clothes.

May 4, 2013 at 05:41

The best article that i have read about this issue
Israel will not attack Iran, the main reason is that they cant,and at this moment,nobody believes in their red lines,wich are delayed year by year.
In addition the Iranian response would be extremely risky for them

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