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.