There’s been a lot of talk about “red lines” lately. Speaking to CNN about Iran’s nuclear program on September 16, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defined the term as “a stage in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that [the Iranians] cannot cross because they’ll face consequences.” Earlier this month, Netanyahu asserted that “those in the international community who refuse to draw a red line on Iran have no moral right to draw a red line for Israel.”
But determining where this “red line” is requires careful consideration of another line, one that the Romney campaign isn’t focusing on. I’m talking about the fine line between a nuclear-capable Iran and a nuclear-armed Iran. As the New York Times has correctly suggested, the distinction between capability and acquisition is “at the core of the debate” over military action against Iran – but Mitt Romney’s team doesn’t seem to have grasped it.
Here’s the difference: A nuclear-capable Iran, per the CIA’s definition, would simply have the “knowledge, infrastructure, and materiel” to begin the process of creating nuclear weapons if the Iranian government chose to do so, while a nuclear-armed Iran would, by definition, have finished creating those weapons. Nuclear capability means that a weapon could theoretically be built, but it would still take several years to develop the actual weapon, as well as a missile-deliverable nuclear warhead. That’s just for one bomb – and Iran is unlikely to build only one. Therefore, a policy of drawing a red line at nuclear “capability” commits America to a preemptive strike years before a red line of “acquisition,” which matters because those intervening years may offer a continued chance to pursue a diplomatic solution and avoid war altogether.
So where is Governor Romney’s red line?
On September 21, Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reported that Mitt Romney had discussed Iran on a conference call with a group of rabbis, and had made his position very clear: “the red line is nuclear capability.” But not so fast: earlier this month, Romney told ABC that “my red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon,” which is decidedly different from drawing the line at capability. (When George Stephanopoulos pressed him on whether this line was the same as Obama’s, Romney responded with a clear “yes.”)
At the same time, though, the Romney campaign was still telling the press that their boss would not accept a nuclear-capable Iran. The day before Romney’s ABC interview, his foreign policy advisor Eliot Cohen declared that Romney would “not be content with an Iran one screwdriver’s turn away from a nuclear weapon…Once they get a weapon, or on the verge of getting it, it’s too late.” In an attempt to resolve the confusion, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said, “As he said this morning, Gov. Romney’s red line is Iran having a nuclear weapons capacity.” But that’s precisely what Romney didn’t say.
In the past, the candidate has frequently spoken of capability as his “red line,” without using that exact term. Speaking in Jerusalem in July, Romney stated: “…today the regime in Iran is five years closer to developing nuclear weapons capability. Preventing that outcome must be our highest national security priority.” In a preview of that speech the day before, Dan Senor, another hawkish member of Romney’s foreign policy team, put it even more bluntly: “It is not enough just to stop Iran from developing a nuclear program. The capability, even if that capability is short of weaponization, is a pathway to weaponization, and the capability gives Iran the power it needs to wreak havoc in the region and around the world.” And in March, Romney told AIPAC that “We must not allow Iran to have the bomb or the capacity to make a bomb.”
What’s going on here? It seems clear that Romney is under pressure from his neoconservative-leaning foreign policy team (and most likely from Netanyahu himself) to draw a red line at nuclear capability. At the same time, Iran is edging closer to capability – by some accounts, it is already there – and Romney is wary of committing himself to military action. The result is that he seems to be treating this crucial distinction pretty casually, lurching back and forth between different red lines. He would be wise to heed Sir Paul McCartney’s warning:
There is a fine line between recklessness and courage
It’s about time you understood which road to take
It’s a fine line and your decision makes a difference
Get it wrong, you’ll be making a big mistake
Watch this space for a closer look at the candidates’ positions on Iran, coming up later this week.