The debate over when (and whether) to set a “red line” for attacking Iran’s nuclear program slipped toward farce last week when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a marker and drew a thick red line across a cartoonlike drawing of an Iranian bomb.
The scene was Netanyahu’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly. And the subject was serious: how to prevent the Iranian regime from producing nuclear weapons.
But the Israeli leader’s constant demand – that the United States set red lines for Iran’s nuclear program, which, if ignored, would trigger U.S. bomb strikes – has become counterproductive. And his hyping of red lines that the United States can’t adopt – and Israel doesn’t want to enforce – undermines his credibility with Tehran. Worst of all, Netanyahu may be boxing Israel into launching a premature war just to prove he meant what he said.
In his U.N. speech, Netanyahu insisted that only by stating clearly what Iran must not do would the world ensure the ayatollahs take a military threat seriously. But the problem with his onstage red line is that it ignores the many reasons that a real-life red line is so risky – and so unwise.
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For starters, even Israel hasn’t been able to define its own red lines clearly. For months, the Israeli press has been filled with speculation that Netanyahu would deliver an “October surprise” – meaning an Israeli attack before U.S. elections. But at the United Nations, Netanyahu set Israel’s deadline as next spring or summer.
No doubt that red line could change based on new developments – say, covert setbacks to Iran’s program such as another computer virus. Or, say, Syrian President Bashar Assad falls, sharply slashing Iran’s regional power.
So why commit yourself to a public deadline for war when you might not want to meet it?
Plus, no U.S. president can commit to start a war on another country’s timeline, especially a vague one. Any U.S. president must design that policy in accordance with America’s interests. He must calculate at what point the threat justifies military action.
Netanyahu’s urgency stems from the belief that the ayatollahs seek Armageddon to expedite the return of their savior. Foul statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stoke such fears.
Yet many U.S. (and Israeli) security experts think the Iranian regime is too rational to entertain the idea of nuking Israel. An attack on Israel would destroy 2 million Palestinians, along with Islam’s third holiest mosque, and guarantee a second-strike nuclear attack on Tehran. It would destroy Iran’s (already fading) aspirations to become leaders of all Muslims, including Sunnis.
Moreover, Ahmadinejad, the prime spouter of apocalyptic rhetoric, is so out of favor with the regime that his spokesman was arrested in Tehran the day Ahmadinejad spoke at the United Nations. His presidential term ends next spring and won’t be extended.
Meanwhile, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan believes a pre-emptive attack by Israel would be “reckless and irresponsible.” It would ignite a regional war with a very uncertain ending (and send oil prices soaring). Moreover, it would only delay Iran’s nuclear program and probably accelerate its drive for a bomb.
The risks entailed should also make any U.S. leader wary of a premature commitment to war. That quick swipe of a red marker on stage misreads the risks of setting red lines.