x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

There is no logic in Netanyahu's policy of 'red lines' on Iran

No wonder Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal for "red lines" isn't getting any traction: it doesn't make any sense.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, came to the United Nations last week to rally the world against a nuclear-armed Iran, but instead produced giggles in even some of the most pro-Israel sections of the US media - the cartoonish Wile E Coyote-style bomb graphic he'd used to illustrate Tehran's nuclear progress reinforced a sense that the Israeli leader may be hyping the threat.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, swatted away the Israeli leader's threats, and offered an intriguing hint of the next phase of the standoff. "Following the [US presidential] election," said Mr Ahmadinejad, "certainly the atmosphere will be much more stable, and important decisions can be made and announced."

While Iran isn't about to capitulate, Tehran could offer a compromise (although Mr Ahmadinejad, a marginal figure in Iran's strategic decision-making, isn't party to those talks). Still, it's quite conceivable that both sides might take advantage of a less politically charged atmosphere to negotiate a compromise that meets some of their goals. Iran has plenty of reason to seek relief from sanctions, while both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have made clear they want to avoid a war with Iran.

However, the prospect of compromise worries Mr Netanyahu, who has been forced into retreat having isolated himself at home and abroad by threatening unilateral military action against Iran, and antagonising even sympathetic elements in the US political establishment by appearing to interfere in the US election.

At the UN he not only signalled his determination to cooperate with Washington on the Iran issue; he ended any remaining speculation that Israel could spring a pre-election "October Surprise" by bombing Iran without US consent. That's because he (once again) wound forward Israel's doomsday clock to sometime next spring or summer.

The Obama administration had denied the Israeli prime minister even the ladder he'd demanded for climbing down from his threat - a US declaration of a "red line" that, if crossed by Iran's nuclear work, would trigger US military action.

So Mr Netanyahu was left to set the table for the coming winter's Iran policy battle with Washington by offering a missive on the importance of setting a "red line". Sanctions are damaging Iran's economy, he argued, but they haven't stopped Iran's nuclear progress.

By next spring or summer, Tehran would have a stockpile of medium-enriched uranium (20 per cent purity) large enough, if reprocessed to weapons grade, to provide the fissile material for a single bomb. If Iran chose to do that, Mr Netanyahu claimed, western intelligence agencies might not know until it was too late, hence his hope of drawing the red line at such a stockpile of 20 per cent uranium.

Iran, said Mr Netanyahu, is run by an apocalyptic suicidal religious cult that could not be "contained" as the nuclear-armed Marxist regimes of the Cold War had been. He quoted historian Bernard Lewis - whose analyses of contemporary Middle Eastern politics often sound like a more academic rendering of Sasha Baron Cohen's orientalist comedy - who said that "for the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it's an inducement", because it would somehow bring forth the messianic 12th Imam.

Many senior Israeli military and security officials, including the defence minister, Ehud Barak, have publicly insisted that Iran's leaders are in fact rational men who prioritise their own survival, and therefore wouldn't court obliteration by launching a nuclear attack on Israel. Mr Barak even told a US interviewer that in Iran's position, he too would want a nuclear weapon.

But then, in a spectacular leap of logic, Mr Netanyahu insisted that the only thing that would stop Iran's nuclear advance would be for the major powers to draw a clear red line, backed by a military threat. He cited examples from the Cold War where the West had contained its (rational-Marxist) adversaries by setting clear red lines.

He even argued that Iran itself had walked back from its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, declaring that a red line. Tehran, said Mr Netanyahu, would back down from uranium enrichment if "faced with a clear red line", thereby "giving more time for sanctions and diplomacy to persuade it to dismantle its nuclear programme".

Really? A bunch of suicidal maniacs for whom self-destruction "is an inducement" will reverse themselves if "red lines" are set, and even be persuaded to dismantle their nuclear programme out of a desire for self-preservation? Each statement can only be true if the other is false, yet Mr Netanyahu stated them with equal conviction.

All of Iran's nuclear material remains under IAEA scrutiny, and Tehran would have to expel inspectors to begin reprocessing such material - which would then take at least three months. By US estimates, it would also take Iran at least a year to create a nuclear warhead after expelling inspectors - and a single bomb does not a nuclear deterrent make. So Netanyahu's red lines, in fact, appear to be designed simply to create a new sense of crises next spring, rather than to mark the point at which Iran moves to build nuclear weapons. And that would help the Israelis create an atmosphere inimical to diplomatic compromises they would oppose.

The Israeli media, meanwhile, credited Mr Netanyahu for putting the issue front and centre of the international agenda.

And, of course, as long as that's the prime topic of conversation between the Israelis and the White House, after all, they're not talking about settlements and Palestinian rights - which also suits Mr Netanyahu just fine.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @TonyKaron