Center for Strategic Communication

In the fall of 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu lobbied the UN to draw a fissile red line with Iran: If Tehran completes the 20% enrichment phase of their path to a nuclear weapon, then the UN should approve a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, he proposed. The UN ratified no such policy but in early March, news stories reported that Iran would divert significant portions of its 20% enriched Uranium to fuel plates, unsuitable for weaponization. The events were interpreted to mean the red line threat had worked perfectly. But this interpretation either missed or ignored the fact that Iran’s diversion of 20% enriched Uranium had actually begun years prior to Netanyahu’s comments, and therefore do not represent a reaction to his threat. More importantly, media coverage failed to recognize or discuss the dangers of red line politics.

When a national leader issues an ultimatum, he or she stakes considerable personal and national credibility on the contingent that the provoker will cooperate; if the provoker ignores the threat, the issuer faces a tough choice: risk military, diplomatic, and economic resources in order to enact the promised response, or, suffer a blow to credibility and influence that would result from not following through on the initial threat.

The issue is particularly troubling as it applies to nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea. In the aftermath of disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an attack on either nation would be extremely unpopular and politically risky in the U.S. and, although outgunned in a traditional sense, both Iran and North Korea could lash out regionally and cause turmoil – stirring terrorist and conventional allied responses in the Middle East and launching conventional attacks on Seoul, respectively – that would lead to devastating loss of life and prolonged conflict. As a result, any U.S. red line would likely be a bluff that, if called, would damage America’s credibility and ability to negotiate in good faith with either nation. Israel might be more willing to carry out an attack, but the regional instability brought on by such an attack would likely dwarf that which would result from an Iranian nuclear weapon in the first place.

A developing scenario in Syria forms an interesting case study. In a December 2012 press conference, President Obama warned Assad that if he uses chemical weapons, “there will be consequences and you will be held accountable”. Now, with reports of chemical attacks in Syria mounting, the president must choose between a politically and militarily nightmarish engagement in Syria and a painful loss of international credibility and influence. The red line he painted suddenly looks more like a corner.

So how do we proceed with regard to Iran and North Korea? Sanctions have failed to halt each nation’s nuclear development, but their progress has been slowed and the doors of diplomacy remain open. Conversely, a bold red line would antagonize peaceful talks and risk violence, resting all hope on the paradoxical belief that force can breed willful long-term cooperation; in ultimatum politics, the best case scenario is one in which the provoking party is made to feel dominated, engendering further contempt – a shaky place to rest your hope.

In poker one can prudently bluff to win, but in delicate matters of foreign affairs, the poker paradigm loses every time.