The Thick Red Line

By Alastair Newton and Ritika Sen - 20 February 2013

In this column Alastair Newton and Ritika Sen argue that although the three elections – in the US in November 2012, in Israel in January 2013 and in Iran in June 2013 – could all have a significant impact on the likelihood and timing of a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear programme. But it remains far from clear where the real “red lines” are.

Whose line is it anyway?

Throughout the course of 2012, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu worked hard to keep Iran on the international radar screen. Recall, for example, his speech at the UN General Assembly in September when he described a “clear red line” for intervention against Iran’s nuclear programme. And, he was, arguably, even more precise a few weeks later when he described 2013 as “the year we confront Iran” during the Israeli election campaign. Furthermore, even after it became clear that Israeli voters had not given his Likud Beitenu the clear mandate he was seeking from the 22 January 2013 general election, he nevertheless described Iran as the “first challenge” facing Israel’s next government in his victory speech.

Meanwhile, Israel’s closest ally, the United States, appeared throughout 2012 to be motivated primarily by the imperative of dissuading Mr Netanyahu from launching a strike before the 6 November 2012 US presidential election. This was not just about pressure on the Israeli leader through “words”, of course, as last year also saw significant “deeds” in the form of the ratcheting up of the sanctions regime against Tehran by the US and EU alike (even though there was no agreement on new sanctions in the UN Security Council). A Security Council sponsored military strike being completely ruled out furthermore because Russia and China would never agree considering they have significant investment in economic and energy cooperation with Iran(1). The agreement for dialogue is therefore a common factor and the EU’s foreign affairs supremo, Catherine Ashton, sought repeatedly to engage the Iranians in serious negotiations under the auspices of what was formerly known as the P5+1 format but which has latterly become the E3+3 (ie France, Germany and the UK plus China, Russia and the US).

To be fair, there do appear to have been genuine policy grounds for the apparent urgency felt by Mr Netanyahu and the relative lack of it gripping President Barack Obama. At least in the early part of the year, the former repeatedly claimed that his red line was that Iran must not be allowed to acquire the means to build a nuclear bomb. The latter, while never explicit in public at least, created the impression that the US could live with Iran reaching the proverbial “screw-driver’s turn” away from nuclear capability provided it did not cross this line.

Red lines and election hurdles

On the other hand, for all of Mr Netanyahu’s rhetorical flourishes, it was always unlikely that he saw the need for military intervention against Iran as so pressing that he would have risked a unilateral attack with an Israeli election already on the horizon. An attack would be a high risk operation militarily with commensurate risks for Mr Netanyahu himself had things gone wrong. As Tobias Buck noted in the Financial Times earlier this year: “Though his language can make him sound confrontational and provocative, history shows that Mr Netanyahu is, in fact, a cautious politician”(2). Mindful of Iran-related history, therefore, the Israeli prime minister is not a man likely to risk becoming the Jimmy Carter of Israel.

The same can no doubt be said of Mr Obama, ie that with the US presidential election behind him one potential domestic hurdle to military intervention against Iran has been crossed. However, we agree with those who say that the president begins his second term without a clear strategy on Iran; and, to judge from his 21 January inauguration speech, he fully intends that domestic policy issues should dominate his personal in-tray in the near-term at least(3). Furthermore, the clear reluctance of Mr Obama to engage in “foreign adventurism” of any sort – witness Syria and Mali – suggests that high hurdles would still have to be crossed before he would countenance military intervention against Iran.

Jaw-jaw not war-war?

That said, by nominating John Kerry as his Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel as his Defence Secretary, Mr Obama seems to have come down firmly on the side of non-military means of addressing Iran’s nuclear aspirations, for now at least. During his Senate confirmation hearing on 24 January, Mr Kerry, having discounted containment as a policy option, said: “I will work to give diplomacy every effort to succeed”. But he also noted that: “The clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance…[and] no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat”.

Recent efforts to bring the Iranians back to the E3+3 negotiating table have yet to bear fruit. In principle Tehran has agreed to a further round of talks – Iran’s foreign minister, Abdul Akbar Salehi recently spoke of Tehran’s willingness to resume negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan on February 25, 2013 in response to a request made by the EU earlier this year. But EU officials remain sceptical as they have so far been met by Iranian delaying tactics while trying to strike agreements on logistics in the past(4). This may reflect genuine differences in Tehran, not so much over the principle of talks but over what Iran wants out of negotiations both in the short-term and in terms of the “end game”. Despite the pain the West believe the sanctions regime is causing (for example, it is estimated that Iran is currently having to pay a 5% to 10% premium on food imports (5), it will be difficult for the Iranians to come up with meaningful commitments this side of their 14 June presidential election, which promises to be a tense struggle between factions within the conservative camp. It may also be a further manifestation of Iran’s carefully calibrated buying of time strategy which has allowed it to advance its nuclear programme for a decade or so now.

The European members of the E3+3 are more cautious about the timeframe required to extend and strengthen the incremental confidence-building process over talks with sanctions relief contingent on Iran’s actions. Furthermore, for all of Mr Kerry’s hints to the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee that he would support allowing Iran to enrich uranium at low levels subject to rigorous IAEA inspections, we frankly doubt that Mr Obama would be prepared to use up his precious political capital trying to win agreement to what many Americans, including Democrats, would regard as unacceptable. If we are correct in this assessment, it follows, we believe, that the E3+3 is unlikely to come up with an offer which Tehran simply cannot refuse, potentially condemning talks to run into the sand again even before they are re-launched.

Red Line Receding?

Irrespective of the outcome of the Israeli election, we felt it unlikely that Mr Netanyahu would seize on his victory to order an early strike against Iran. First among our several reasons for believing this was our conviction that Washington and others would pressure the Israeli leader to stay his hand at least until after Iran’s 14 June election in the hope – and we stress the word “hope” rather than “expectation” – that a combination of another less than free and fair presidential election and the additional economic pain which sanctions are inflicting on “ordinary” Iranians would trigger renewed civil unrest similar to that which we saw in the wake of the 2009 presidential election but this time succeeding in bringing about some sort of regime change. We put only a very low probability on regime change of this sort in Iran in the foreseeable future: but, unless reputable assessments of Iran’s progress with its nuclear programme are significantly overestimating the time needed still even to reach the point of “break-out”, it is nevertheless worth waiting to see.

This mattered, including from the perspective of financial markets which last year pushed the price of Brent crude up to around $128 per barrel in mid-March, concerned that Mr Netanyahu would order a strike during the January to April “window” when weather conditions in the region are generally at their best for long-range air attacks. A repeat of this sort of upward pressure on oil prices thanks to perceived geopolitical risk would not have been welcomed by policymakers at a time when the global economy is still struggling.

As it is, Israeli voters seem to have done their best to reduce the probability of an early strike still further by condemning their politicians to, in all probability, several weeks of post-election coalition negotiations. In particular, in the quest for a stable administration, Mr Netanyahu – who gets first shot at forming a majority coalition thanks to his Likud Beitenu’s plurality – will have to look left as well as right for partners. He has, initially, 28 days to try to consolidate a majority, with the possibility of an extension of a further 14 days. Bridging major gaps on key policy issues between centrist parties on the one hand and the parties which commentators tend to regard as Mr Netanyahu’s more natural allies on the other, ie the two Orthodox Jewish parties in the Knesset and Neftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi party, may well take all the available time and could, even then, end in failure (in which case President Shimon Peres will pass the baton to the leader of the second-largest party, ie Yair Lapid of centrist Yesh Atid party).

Furthermore, not only do we accept the argument put forward by Israeli expert commentator on Iran, Meir Javedanfar, that “Israelis are unanimous in not wanting the Iranian regime to have nuclear weapons”, we also agree with him that there are significant differences within Israel over how best to address the potential threat (6). This too matters in that, assuming one takes Mr Netanyahu at his hawkish word (and we believe one should), the recent election outcome cannot reasonably be interpreted as any sort of mandate for military action. Indeed, we go further and suggest that securing the necessary support in the security cabinet for a strike at any time looks like a much harder task now than would have been the case had Mr Netanyahu been able to form a government dominated by right-of-centre nationalists and the Orthodox parties, as had looked likely in the run-up to the election.

It follows that, insofar as Mr Netanyahu’s real red line was clear in the first place (and we see considerable fungibility around what constitutes “the means to build a nuclear weapon”), domestic political considerations may now have broadened it out still further into what could be called a “red ribbon”, where the trailing edge – which may be close to Mr Obama’s presumed red line – could prove to be more important than the leading edge.

Red Ribbon, Not Carte Blanche

If this thesis is correct, although Mr Netanyahu’s hawkish rhetoric on Iran is likely to remain unrelenting we may have considerably more time to see if a combination of sanctions and diplomatic overtures can indeed deflect the regime in Iran from whatever its nuclear aspirations may really be. That said, it is to be hoped that hardliners in Tehran do not interpret Israel’s election outcome as a carte blanche as far their nuclear programme is concerned. For to do so would risk a serious error of judgment not only over Mr Netanyahu’s determination not to go down in history as the prime minister on whose watch Tehran acquired a nuclear weapon but also Mr Obama’s probable willingness to do whatever it takes to hold the line short of a nuclear Iran.

Alastair Newton is a former British diplomat now working as a political analyst in the City of London: he is currently President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. Ritika Sen, a former student of the LSE, currently works as an investment banker in finance in the City of London.  The views expressed in this article are those of the authors only.


NB: The main title derives from “the thin red line”, originally referring to the 93rd Highland Regiment at the Battle of Balaclava (1854) which later became a generic term for British infantry regiments in action. While the subtitle “Whose line is it anyway?” was a British improvised radio (and later TV) comedy show in the 1980s. With regards to the third subtitle, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war” are words first attributed to the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at a White House luncheon on 26 June 1954.

1. “Why China and Russia support Iran” by Richard Weitz, The Diplomat, 19 November 2011.
2. “Netanyahu must convince himself on Iran” by Tobias Buck, Financial Times, 13 February 2012.
3. See, eg, “Obama’s year of reckoning awaits in Iran” by Edward Luce, Financial Times, 16 December 2013.
4. “Iran says it is set for nuclear talks, but West is sceptical” by Jay Solomon, The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2013.
5. “Iran pays premium on food imports” by Javier Blas, Financial Times, 29 November 2012
6. “Elections unlikely to change Israel’s Iran strategy” by Meir Javedanfar, Al-Monitor Israel Pulse, 24 January 2013.

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