Over the last few weeks, the most popular question related to nonproliferation and conflict resolution has been "Should the United States draw a red line regarding Iran's nuclear program?" Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, was on Meet the Press requesting that Obama draw a red line, which is basically asking the President to declare what stage of Iranian nuclear development would trigger a US military attack. President Obama partially drew a red line when he said that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon; however, he does not want to focus on the red-line issue at this time. Mitt Romney has said that he agrees with President Obama that Iran cannot acquire a weapon. Days later Mitt Romney said that Iran cannot be allowed to have the capability of having a nuclear weapon. However, this current discussion misses the fact that drawing a red line is often not such a simple binary decisions. There are some important questions to ask and several pros and cons to consider before making this decision.
- How specific should the red line be? Mitt Romney said that the red line should be drawn at Iran having the capability of acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he also said later that he didn't think it was helpful to talk specifically about what technically qualifies as this red line (i.e. 20% enrichment, number of centrifuges, or 90% enrichment?).
- Should this red line be communicated publicly? The more the United States presses a red line in public then the more humiliating and more difficult it will be for Iran to back down.
Pros (to drawing the red line)
- Iran is more likely to take the US seriously if it draws a red line. Human beings have a tendency to take people more seriously if they say "I swear..." or "I promise..."
- If complemented with technical specificity, a red line can focus the negotiation on technical facts. Any peaceful agreement between Iran and the other nations likely will have to be very technical.
Cons (to drawing a red line)
- Drawing a red line is only effective if Iran treats this threat credibly.
- Drawing a red line is effectively giving away the US's bottom line and telling Iran it can proceed up to right before this point.
- Drawing a red line should not replace real negotiation. Drawing a red line is about the positions of the parties to a conflict and does not even scratch beneath the surface to address the parties' interests. Interest-based negotiation is what the book Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury is all about. Drawing a red line does not address why Iran is interested in nuclear weapons to begin with.
- It could be difficult to tell if Iran crosses the red line because the red line may lack technical specificity or the intelligence may be wrong.
- Drawing a red line puts the conflict on a narrative path toward war. In this narrative, peace is as only possible through the use of force or the threat of force. It puts war at the front of people's minds and people starting dwelling on the red line and when to go to war and less on how to solve the problem peacefully. And it's hard to stop a nation once it's put on the path to war.
Essentially, drawing a red line can be a good negotiation technique but it is dangerous. President Obama should only draw this red line if he thinks he can hold back the engines of war long enough to actually negotiate. If he can't, then he should hold off on firmly drawing the red line. He can always use this tactic later because current intelligence estimates as reported in the news tend to say we still have some time before Iran could build nuclear weapons.