The different language used in the latest public row between Israeli and US officials is actually quite telling. The notion of a “deadline” rejected by Hillary Clinton suggests a time frame beyond which the Iran talks are declared useless, kicking into gear a shift to the attack mode. A “red line”, on the other hand, requires the specification of a point in technological advances, the crossing of which would elicit an attack.
Benjamin Netanyahu and officials from his government have used the term “red line” several times. It was inspired by Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s rather vague notion of the “zone of immunity,” which presumably has to do with circumstances under which Israel would judge Iran’s key nuclear facilities so fortified as to make the country’s “capability” to build a bomb immune to attacks. In other words, a red line is when a military attack on the country would become ineffective or impossible.
But, true to form, Israeli officials have been quite vague in terms of exactly what would constitute nuclear capability. Indeed, despite all the talk regarding red lines, no one really knows what the Israeli threshold is. Meanwhile this vagueness is critical to the argument that Obama is not doing enough to assure Israel. Just take a look at this exchange between two hard-line supporters of Israel:
Goldberg: Come back to red lines. What would your red line be if you were the Israeli prime minister, and what would your red line be if you were the American president?
Satloff: Thankfully, I am neither, just a humble think-tank director. The rub is that America and Israel have similar and complementary interests but not identical interests; the threshold for risk to be borne by a great power thousands of miles away and a small though potent regional power in the neighborhood are different; and therefore the red lines the Israeli prime minister and American president will lay down will necessarily be different. Especially at this hyper-politicized moment, when President Obama is allergic to the idea of deepening foreign entanglements, it is highly unlikely that he could begin to approach the sort of commitment-to-use-military-force-when-Iran-crosses-a-certain-enrichment-threshold that PM Netanyahu would like to hear.
In short, the only clues we have are that the Israeli red line is “necessarily” lower than the US’s red line and that it entails Iran crossing into a “certain enrichment threshold.” To boot, instead of answering the question about the Israeli red line, the onus is placed on the Obama administration since it “has not drawn a red line based on a clear definition of what preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon really means in practice”.
The bottom line: the Israelis have a red line that is lower than the US’ and this red line has something to do with nuclear capability and enrichment. But it is the Obama Administration that is faulted for not clearly defining what “acquiring a nuclear weapon” means!
It is easy to see how the framing of the game in terms of red lines has the making of a very bad marriage for the Obama Administration, which Robert Satloff condescendingly concedes is “allergic to deepening foreign entanglements” as though it is not also the mood of the country. By remaining deliberately ambiguous about the Israeli red line, the stage is set for a rather bad relationship in which one side is always the needy and nagging party while the other cannot stop the nagging no matter how much it gives, short of a military attack on Iran.
It is in this context that Clinton’s clever switch of language to deadlines becomes significant. No more rhetorical maneuvers regarding conflicting thresholds that no one is willing to define. The red line Netanyahu wants is actually a time frame for US military action and this is not what the Obama Administration, or any US administration for that matter, should be willing to give to anyone; not even to its highly insecure and demanding partner.