Netanyahu is right about "red lines" for Iran

If you follow Iran's nuclear developments or Israeli politics even remotely, you'll have heard about the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fight with US President Barak Obama over setting "red lines" for Iran's nuclear program. Netanyahu says he won't be able to relax or feel confident that the US will really prevent Iran from developing a bomb unless these "red lines" are drawn firmly by the United States. The US (and not just Barak Obama) refuses to do this.

Red lines are basically lines someone sets that tell an opponent "if you cross this line, X will happen." They're a way of communicating exactly what actions an opponent can expect in order to deter something very specific. In the case of Iran, the red line might be enrichment to a certain level, for example. The reason Netanyahu wants them is twofold: 1. They would make it clear to Iran that it cannot go beyond a certain point of no return or it will suffer consequences; 2. They would force the United States to make a specific commitment to act that would be hard to back down from. Basically, Netanyahu would like the US AND Iran to be backed against a clear wall in order to minimize uncertainty about the future.

This post is not about whether red lines are a good idea. But Netanyahu is right about their effects, which is precisely why the US refuses to set them. Obama does not want to create a situation where the US would be forced to act. He wishes to retain the US's freedom of maneuver. Netanyahu is therefore also right, I think, that the US is not really committed to stopping Iran from getting the bomb no matter what. If it would be too dangerous to stop it, US policymakers may privately be thinking that containment would be less bad than the threat of yet another war in the Middle East, one that would likely only delay Iran's bomb-making (while making Iran more determined to get one). They look around and note that some pretty belligerent foes (think North Korea) have yet to ever use nuclear weapons on their enemies.

As for me, I think Iran having a bomb would bad on several levels. Two examples are an arms race in the region and a more "leaky" anti-proliferation regime, as Iran might help its friends to develop nukes as well. It would also reduce Israel and the US's freedom of maneuver in the region as they would be deterred by Iran's bomb. This, I think, is the number one reason why Israel, above all, fears it. I too, though, am unconvinced that we should to anything and everything to stop Iran from getting the bomb. That doesn't mean I've decided, it just means that other outcomes might actually be worse and attacking Iran needs to be a definite last resort. Netanyahu and Obama, then, must agree to disagree for now. If Romney becomes president, I'm not sure that would change.


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