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“Red Lines” On Iran: Not So Black and White

Amid the proliferation of red lines, the important ones are at risk of being opaque or even unintelligible in Tehran.

By Shashank Joshi for

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.

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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.

But if Iran saw this episode as a failed bluff by Israel, then it might have reduced the credibility of future red lines – the “boy who cried wolf” phenomenon. Amid a profusion of red lines, the important ones are at risk of being opaque or even unintelligible in Tehran.

Even if Iran could easily pick out which red lines were for its consumption, there is a further problem. Drawing a red line to deter involves a dilemma between ambiguity and specificity: too ambiguous and Iran might cross the line by accident; too specific and one risks binding one’s hands, losing the element of surprise, alienating allies and third-parties, and, above all, letting Iran walk right up to the threshold. As former Israeli military intelligence chief Major General Amos Yadlin put it, “when you set a red line, you are providing the enemy with the capability to decide when you must act for you, instead of you deciding to act when it is operationally expedient. At the same time, it also determines what acts, such as the massacre of 80,000 people, do not demand action.”

We can see this dynamic at work in the public red lines of the United States and Israel, both in Syria and Iran: each appears to be unambiguous, but leaves key unanswered questions about what is and is not covered.

The American red line

American officials, from the president downwards, have insisted that Iran will not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon. As the political scientist Richard Betts recently observed, “as promises in foreign policy go, this one is chiseled in stone.” But try parsing Leon Panetta’s words: “If  … we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it … we think we will have the opportunity once we know that they’ve made that decision.”

A number of questions follow. What if no decision was detected, but Iranian scientists connected to the allegedly “halted” weapons program began taking worrying steps? In August 2012, for instance, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of that program, had opened a research facility in Tehran's northern suburbs 'involved in studies relevant to developing nuclear weapons’, including “the same scientists and military staff active” a decade ago.

More broadly, what does it even mean to “develop” nuclear weapons? Could Iran cross the line even before it decided to produce weapons-grade fissile material? Western officials allege that Iran conducted conventional explosives testing relevant to a warhead at the military base of Parchin – but if that did not count as developing a weapon, then what would? In truth, weapons development is a continuum. No single step is sufficient to conclude that a decision has been made.

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This allows Iran to operate in the nebulous space between the status quo as perceived by the West (a dormant nuclear weapons program, but with ad hoc and on-going efforts at weapons research) and the prohibited end-state (possession of a nuclear weapon). Assuming that Iran wants a high degree of nuclear latency – the ability to produce nuclear weapons indigenously in short order – then it has incentives to engage in salami-slicing behavior. No one, probably not even the Obama administration, knows where in that process Washington’s redline would be crossed but, as the President phrased it in March, “obviously we don't want to cut it too close.” Some might argue that uncertainty is a good thing, if it keeps Iran guessing – but it also brings heightened risk.

There is no clean solution to this problem. But one way to strike a better balance – if this has not already been done – would be to communicate privately to Iran some, though not all, of the actions that would be seen as indicators of weaponization. Doing so in secret would mitigate the concerns about creating a public crisis and getting over-committed, while allowing some ambiguity to be preserved. Whether or not you favor red lines, misperception is bad.

The Israeli red line

Israel’s policy seems more straightforward. In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu literally drew his red line onto a visual depiction of a stylized bomb, just before “Iran gets to a point where it's a few months away – or a few weeks away – from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.” Most analysts took this to mean that Israel would not permit Iran to accumulate one bomb’s worth of uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent, a level of enrichment that is nine-tenths of the way to weapons-grade.

What is a bomb’s worth? Towards the end of 2012, Israeli officials privately briefed journalists that they had defined it as 240kg. It is not clear how Israel arrived at this number, because the calculation depends on a wide variety of factors, such as the sophistication of Iran’s hypothetical warhead design and the set-up of their centrifuges. Gary Samore, President Obama's nuclear non-proliferation adviser until the beginning of this year, has argued that “nobody knows, including the Iranians, how much … they need to have a bomb's worth. They have never done it. They have never converted.”

Confusingly, Netanyahu then claimed, in an April 2013 interview with the BBC, that the red line was 250kg. Which is it? If the latter, might it change again? And why has it been invoked in public so rarely? Muddying the waters further, a former military intelligence chief, Major General Amos Yadlin, told a conference last month that “today it can be said that the Iranians have crossed the red line set by Netanyahu at the UN assembly.” If that is so, why should Iran believe this red line to be any more restrictive than those it was ignored in the past?

In circulating a specific figure so obliquely, Israel has been trying to have its cake and eat it too. Netanyahu probably succeeded in persuading Iran to cut its stockpiles by converting uranium into reactor fuel (though it was doing that even before the UN speech). Iran would otherwise have crossed the red line by the end of 2012 – on present trends, it won’t do so until next year. But if Iran does cross the red line and Israel feels it lacks allied support for military action – after all, both American and British officials are skeptical of the 240kg figure – it can exploit this ambiguity to disclaim the number and back down without losing credibility.

As we explore in our RUSI paper, Israel’s red line has other ambiguities: what if Iran piled up a bomb’s worth of converted but unused fuel? Or moved a bomb’s worth of uranium to its conversion facility at Esfahan and left it there, untouched, claiming it was set aside for conversion? As Iran uses conversion to dial down the tension, these questions loom ever larger. What seemed a clear red line is in fact a reddish blur.

Any red line that is capable of such flexible interpretation is more likely to be tested. As the political scientist Scott Sagan has argued, “risk and deterrence go hand-in-hand as a consequence of commitment: a state cannot get the extra measure of deterrence that comes from making threats without also accepting some extra risk of having to implement that threat if deterrence fails.” Dilute that risk, and you dilute deterrence.

A red line on enrichment?

Finally, we should consider a third – as-yet unstated – red line: Iran’s enrichment capacity. In theory, Iran can keep adding more and better centrifuges in perpetuity, as long as it keeps trimming its stockpile and avoids any obvious moves towards weapons production. In practice, it’s less clear whether Iran’s adversaries would allow it to continue on this path, particularly if diplomatic talks do not bear fruit by late summer.

One reason for this is the unpleasant prospect of years or – as in the case of Iraq –a decade-long standoff, involving economy-destroying sanctions and the commitment of military forces, on high readiness, to the Gulf. A second reason is the fear that Iran’s capacity could grow to the point where the country might enrich a bomb’s worth of uranium in the time between IAEA inspections. David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has suggested that Iran will reach this point – what he calls “critical capability” – in the middle of next year.

The problem is that drawing a red line around this point is extremely difficult. As Hugh Chalmers and I demonstrate in our report, even with a vastly bigger enrichment program, Iran would still face very high odds – prohibitive, in our view – of being caught during any dash to produce weapons-grade uranium. Undetected breakout is probably impossible. The IAEA obviously keeps its inspections schedule secret and probably somewhat randomized. This means that neither we, nor Iran, could ever objectively calculate the risk. But red lines have to refer to mutually intelligible points.

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This ambiguity can be overcome by specifying the red line in terms of a ceiling on breakout time (e.g. “less than one week”) or material capabilities (e.g. “fewer than 2,000 advanced centrifuges”). But, returning to the dilemma, this would invite Iran to approach, but not cross, this threshold. It would also reduce the flexibility of those states issuing the threat, committing them to military action at a point where Iran might not even have made a decision to build nuclear weapons let alone taken concrete steps to that end. Much of the world would view this as arbitrary – as it would be – and disproportionate.

These dilemmas occur again and again. They inhere in the nature of deterrence. But it is important that policymakers are conscious of the problem and the balance they have chosen to strike.  As Richard Betts put it, “deterrence should be ambiguous only if it is a bluff.” If the policy of the United States and Israel really is a bluff, then there is little risk of war. The danger arises if this is not so, and Iran either confuses ambiguity with a lack of resolve or, more likely, misunderstands the specific transgressions that really would trigger war. In this regard, the metaphor of red lines – connoting a clear demarcation of war from peace – is inappropriate, certainly when we consider the view from Tehran.

Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute.