On the Push to Move America’s Red Lines on Iran, Issues of Definition and Enforcement

A few days ago I co-published a new piece (along with Jaclyn Tandler, Junior Nuclear Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) in Diplomatic Courier, which you can find here.  It’s called “On Nuclear Capability: Drawing Red Lines in a Gray Area.”

The article derives from an issue more of us might do well to consider as the red line discussion forges uneasily ahead: how should the international community, and the U.S. and Israel specifically, define “nuclear capability”? The discussion on red lines has thus far seemed to view this question as almost superfluous, as if there is already a standard definition for nuclear capability. That simply isn’t the case.

The implications of this question are far from trivial, particularly in the wake of recently introduced bipartisan legislation sponsored Sen. Casey (D-PA), Sen. Lieberman (I-CT), and Sen. Graham (R-SC) that seeks to move U.S. red lines for military action from an Iranian attempt to acquire nuclear weapons to an Iranian nuclear capability.  One of the aims of this policy, it would seem, would be to align American and Israeli clocks, removing the very apparent daylight between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations over how to approach the Iranian issue.

Yet without a standard definition – or at least a mutual understanding – of what the term “capability” actually means, the legislation may not achieve its objectives.  Indeed, neither the IAEA, nor the senators’ proposed legislation, nor their subsequent Wall Street Journal op-ed touting their bill, shed any light on what is meant by nuclear capability. Even AIPAC, which has pushed strongly for President Obama to move up his red line to Iranian “capability,” did not clearly define its view of the term during its recent annual policy conference.

Why does this matter? Well, think of it this way: what happens if the senators’ bill passes, but the U.S. still defines “capability” more leniently than does Israel? If Israel still believes that the U.S. new red line defines capability in a way that will only come after Iran has passed Israel’s so-called “zone of immunity” for an attack, then Israel will still feel the same urgency to strike as they do now.  The clocks will still not be aligned, and the two countries still will not be on the same page.

Add to the ambiguity issue yet another complication: even if Congress were to pass such a bill, would President Obama enforce it?  Some might argue that Congress successfully forced the President’s hand on sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, and thus could do so again on red lines. However, the comparison does not hold water. As commander-in-chief, President Obama is in charge of deploying armed forces for war.  Historically, the United States has never gone to war simply by Congressional declaration and without Presidential approval (though, of course, the President has historically done so without Congressional approval).  With rising gas prices, a slowly recovering economy, and a war-weary public, is it really reasonable to think that President Obama would even grudgingly stand behind such legislation if it were to pass?

So sure, the bill may well become a law, and if it does, look for the issue of enforcement of a stricter red line to become the new hot button issue come election season.  But without a common U.S.-Israeli definition of capability, that battle is more politics than policy.

I invite you to read the article on Diplomatic Courier (which discusses in greater varying views on nuclear capability), and see if you agree.

About the Author
Mark is a non-resident research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.