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Hot Debate Over Red Lines

11:50 AM, Sep 14, 2012 • By MICHAEL MAKOVSKY AND BLAISE MISZTAL
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Geopolitically, the negative consequences of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon will begin well before it ever announces itself as a nuclear power. Indeed, because the costs of nuclear conflict are so grave, there is a strong incentive to err on the side of caution when estimating the nuclear capabilities of other countries. Thus, U.S. intelligence analysts came to the conclusion that North Korea either had a nuclear weapon or was capable of assembling one in the late 1990s – leading the military to adjust its planning accordingly. Still, North Korea did not publicly declare that it had a nuclear weapon until 2005 and not until 2006 did the reclusive dictatorship actually conduct a nuclear test. Similarly, as Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium balloons and its centrifuges multiply, other countries would have no choice but to treat it as a nuclear power, becoming more cautious about provoking, and more willing to appease Iran, lest they spark a conflict that could escalate dangerously. 

Finally, the entirety of Iran’s nuclear program is not fully transparent, limiting what we can know about it and when we can know it. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors routinely monitor and report on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, but those reports are based on access Iran allows to known facilities. IAEA reports provide credible data about how close Iran is to producing highly enriched uranium. But while the IAEA has strong evidence to suggest that Iran is also attempting to master the designs for a nuclear weapon, they have no way of verifying it.

Indeed, determining whether Iran is building a nuclear device would be exceedingly difficult. It would require precise intelligence gathering about when the small cadre of Iranian leaders responsible for the country’s nuclear program make the decision to assemble a weapon, and where that final turn of the screwdriver is occurring. United States officials have consistently maintained that they have the means to detect any such attempt to assemble a weapon. "We know generally what they're up to. And so we keep a close track on them,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently said. Adding that “we think we will have the opportunity once we know that they've made that decision, to take the action necessary to stop [Iran].” However, the track record of U.S. intelligence agencies in this field, as Israeli leaders are well aware, is not encouraging; they have never before predicted any country’s initial test of a nuclear weapon: not India’s, not Pakistan’s, not North Korea’s. This is not an indictment of the intelligence agencies but it does illustrate the difficulty in gathering this type of information – a difficulty that must be factored into any decision about setting red lines.

The debate between these two camps, as we have written previously, was already waged within the administration and Congress late last year and early this year, when there seemed to be some confusion about what the policy was or should be. In the end, the administration did resolve this internal debate and, despite some commentators thinking otherwise. It has drawn the line at, as President Obama has consistently and repeatedly said, preventing Iran from “acquiring a nuclear weapon,” even though a bipartisan group of 32 Senators urged him to draw it at capability. The administration’s decision gives the United States more time to attempt diplomacy and sanctions – avoiding setting a “deadline,” as Clinton said – but it has nevertheless been clear about its intentions if time ever does run out. As Panetta told CBS in an interview, “If . . . we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it.”

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