Behind the Line

Claire Schachter on if the world should be focused on drawing a red line for Iran.
By: /
October 1, 2012
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been making a single line of argument for the past month, so if you’re starting to see red, you can safely blame the headlines.

The “drawing a ‘red line’ for Iran" rhetoric isn’t new, or unique to Netanyahu, but on September 11th, he took it to a whole new level. On that day, Netanyahu blasted Washington’s decision to not set firm deadlines for when the U.S. would use force to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Said Netanyahu:

The world tells Israel to wait because there is still time. And I ask: Wait for what? Until when? 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. If Iran knows that there is no red line or deadline, what will it do? Exactly what it is doing today – continuing to work unhindered towards obtaining nuclear weapons capability and, from there, nuclear bombs.

The “red line” was also the focal point of Netanyahu’s address to the Annual Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this past week. The Israeli PM’s decision to draw out a diagram to illustrate his point provoked a firestorm of ridicule – mid speech, Netanyahu sketched out a cartoon bomb with a red line across it, to signal the point when Iran would have 90 per cent of the weapons grade material needed to swiftly manufacture a nuclear bomb. Talking about the “final stage” of Iran’s nuclear program generally provokes strong reactions, but Netanyahu’s amateur drawing is what has really got people talking. And laughing in some cases, particularly on Twitter.

But the hilarity factor is negligible at best to those who believe Iran’s nuclear program seriously undermines global security. Some fear that the diagram encourages making light of what is in reality an existential threat to Israel, and that using a cartoon bomb – even if it got the world’s attention – was a mistake.

How severe or imminent the threat of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel actually is remains unclear. According to a CFR interview with David Albright:

Iran has made considerable progress at developing a fairly robust nuclear weapons capability, so that if it decided today to enrich uranium up to weapons-grade for making nuclear weapons, it could do so. There's nothing standing in their way, technically, anymore, and they could produce quite a bit of weapons-grade material. But the key issue is that they haven't made a decision to do that.

While Canada has made clear where it stands on Iran in relation to its human rights record and anti-Israeli sentiments, the Harper government has not publicly backed Netanyahu on his red line offensive. Perhaps the government’s strong backing of Israel generally, and its moves to condemn Iran specifically – the recent embassy closure being the obvious one – speak louder than any definitive statement in support of Netanyahu’s recent red line offensive would. Regardless, Canadian officials are being careful. Peter MacKay discussed the issue at a news conference in Washington, D.C. Friday morning:

There have been a number of red lines placed already, and Iran has edged closer and stepped over those red lines on a number of occasions now, particularly when it comes to cooperation around the subject of inspections … The achieving of nuclear capability is the red line, when and where that kicks in I guess is open to interpretation.

Obama’s team has clearly decided that keep open lines of communication – red or otherwise – with Netanyahu, is too risky right now. In the midst of election season and with tensions still running high throughout the Greater Middle East, Obama is distancing himself from contentious leaders, as indicated by the cold responses to requests for visits from both Netanyahu and Egyptian Prime Minister Mohamed Morsi. This is both strategic and pragmatic because Iran has shown little indication that it responds well – if at all – to ultimatums on its nuclear program.

As Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, notes, “The problem with the whole red line issue is that Israel has set so many red lines and the Iranians have crossed every one of them.”

We need to think more about where the “red line” arguments could lead us, and spend less time debating where the red lines are, or should be, if we want to avoid being drawn into the exact conflict Netanyahu is so keen to avoid.

Photo courtesy of Reuters