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Hot Debate Over Red Lines

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A simmering dispute between the United States and Israel heated up this week as leaders of both countries traded sharp statements. On the surface, and according to most media accounts, the disagreement stems from Israel’s dissatisfaction that the United States has not articulated a red line that it will not allow Iran’s nuclear program to cross. But the Obama administration has articulated a red line. In fact, the U.S.–Israel spat is fundamentally about Israel’s dissatisfaction with where that line is drawn and its lack of confidence that the line can and will be enforced.

Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This week, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew attention declaring that those “who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” He was responding to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement from the day before regarding Iran: “We’re not setting deadlines.” Not surprisingly, this dispute has been interpreted as being about American willingness, or lack thereof, to establish a red line – a line beyond which Iran’s nuclear program will not be allowed to advance. But this is both a misreading of Clinton’s comment – deadlines are not red lines – and of Israeli concerns. At the heart of this dispute are actually esoteric questions at the intersection of foreign policy, intelligence gathering, military planning and nuclear engineering: what does Iran need to do in order to acquire nuclear weapons? What specific actions can prevent Iran from acquiring them? When will it be too late to prevent Iran from taking that last step? How much can we know about what Iran is actually doing?

There are two main schools of thought about where to draw the line on Iranian action. The first maintains that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon – meaning a fully-assembled, functioning nuclear device – but, by extension, anything short of that will be tolerated. The second argues that Iran should be stopped even before it is able to build a complete nuclear weapon – that it cannot be allowed to achieve even the capability to produce a nuclear weapon.

The distinction between these two approaches – nuclear weapon versus nuclear weapons capability – stems from the minutiae of nuclear technology. A nuclear weapon has three main components: first, fissile material either highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium that can release massive, destructive amounts of energy; second, the device, or “weapon,” which creates the nuclear explosion by triggering a nuclear chain reaction in the fissile material; third, a delivery mechanism—bomb, missile, or some unconventional means—that delivers the weapon to its target.

A country can be considered to have developed a nuclear weapon once it has assembled the three main components of a nuclear weapon. Some might consider testing to prove weaponization, but the United States never tested the bomb it dropped on Hiroshima, partly because of a limited supply of fissile material. Nuclear weapons capability, on the other hand, is achieved when a country has all the requisite technology and components, but has not yet assembled them or tested a weapon.

The chief advantage of drawing the red line at a nuclear weapon is clarity. It is both clear what act would violate that red line and that such an act would also be illegitimate. Iran, as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, has committed not to build a nuclear weapon. The United States’ and its allies’ assertion that an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable is clearly supported by international law.

Proponents of drawing the red line at capability believe that such clarity does not exist, and that ambiguity pervades both illicit nuclear programs and the international arena. This argument has three dimensions: technical, geopolitical, and intelligence. Technologically, fissile material production has historically been the most difficult and time-intensive hurdle to developing nuclear weapons. Other countries that have successfully built a nuclear weapon spent much more time producing fissile material than they did designing the actual weapon. For example, the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima was already on a boat in the Pacific while its fissile material was still being manufactured. Thus, making nuclear weapons capability effectively means a commitment to prevent Iran from producing highly enriched uranium.

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