Enrichment or Weapons: Where is the Red Line on Iran?

For all the expressions of friendship and support between U.S. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two have different thresholds over what would lead them to attack Iran and different visions of how the issue of Iran’s potential nuclear weapons capability can be resolved.

Netanyahu believes that any potential Iranian nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable. Thus, Israel requires three things: the cessation of all nuclear enrichment in Iran; the removal of all enriched uranium from Iran; and the permanent closure of facilities associated with nuclear weapons activity in Iran. This position is intended to strip Iran of even a nascent nuclear program; and Israel believes that force should be used to achieve it, if necessary.

President Obama, however, has set his red line for the use of force at Iran’s acquisition of an actual nuclear weapon. The clearest expression of this came in early January from U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta: “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is: do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.”

Netanyahu’s position, one that many Israeli analysts are sceptical of, requires concessions that most Iran watchers regard as impossible. Iran will not dismantle all nuclear capability; too much has been invested, both politically and financially. Any politician, even the Supreme Leader, who made such an abject surrender could not survive the cut-throat world of Iranian politics.

The U.S. position is potentially feasible as the basis of a deal, but will require hard bargaining.  The U.S. and other leading powers will likely require significant reductions in Iranian enrichment and other nuclear activities, as well as very stringent long term inspection rights to make sure Iran is living within the terms of the agreement. Iran will, presumably, try to make these terms as loose as possible, and will also insist on having economic sanctions and other penalties lifted.

In essence, Obama is signalling that he is prepared to live with a nascent Iranian nuclear capability, and to contain it with a combination diplomatic engagement and a form of deterrence designed to prevent Iran from going all the way to a bomb.

Israel says it cannot accept this. As the only nuclear-weapons state in the region, Israel regards any other state even approaching that threshold as an unacceptable development. And an Iran that calls for Israel’s destruction is particularly difficult to countenance as a state with a residual nuclear weapons capability.

However, Israel’s ability to stop Iran unilaterally is questionable. It can certainly set back the Iranian nuclear program with an attack, but most estimates are that this would amount to a set-back of a few years at most. Most analysts also believe that an Israeli attack would simply have the effect of making Iran much more determined to develop an actual weapon.

Only the U.S. has the military might to attempt to fully destroy the Iranian program and make it stick over time with repeated attacks as required. Such an effort, however, appears to involve what Obama regards as an unacceptable risk of yet another long-term American war in the Middle East. Washington thus appears willing to consider a deal which prevents Iran from getting a weapon and contains its residual nuclear capability.

This is the crux of the debate between Netanyahu and Obama. It is why the U.S. fears that Israel will attack unilaterally, and also why Israel is doing everything it can to pressure the U.S. and the international community to see things its way. Most analysts believe that Israeli threats to attack unilaterally are a bluff intended to get the world to bring pressure to bear on Iran. If so, it has certainly worked. But any good threat requires a willingness to back it up.

To complicate matters further, there are differing Israeli and U.S. timescales as to when an attack would be necessary. Israel worries that sometime this summer, Iran’s nuclear program will reach a ‘zone of immunity’—a point at which it will be impossible for Israel to stop Iran militarily. The U.S. believes that Iran’s nuclear facilities will be vulnerable for long after that.

Beyond the smiles and handshakes we saw in Washington, there are serious differences.

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