Lessons from Syria for Iran

Six months after it was first hinted at, and a month after widespread reports surfaced, the United Nations, Britain, and France have all just confirmed the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Yet, there has been no U.S. response to Syria’s increasingly clear violation of President Obama’s publicly stated red line. This lack of action raises serious questions about the resoluteness of U.S. policy when it comes to another potential “game-changer” in the region: Iran developing a nuclear weapon.

Rather than deterring Syria or Iran from using or pursuing illicit weapons, the administration’s red lines appear to be eroding U.S. credibility and national security. The lesson learned from Syria is that preventing a nuclear Iran will require an actionable and verifiable red line. This should include a credible mechanism for assessing Iran’s progress toward the red line and warning of its crossing.

To be effective, red lines must be possessed of three virtues.

First, a red line must be actionable. In Syria, the United States drew the red line at the very action it hoped to prevent—the use of chemical weapons—leaving no time to act. A red line ought not be confused with the undesirable event it seeks to stop. Instead it is a moat around that event, designed to trigger action before it occurs. Thus, to be effective the red line must be set sufficiently ahead of the event it seeks to prevent to allow time for detection, mobilization, and reaction.

Second, any red line ought to be verifiable by a realistic and pre-determined evidentiary standard. To be able to react if a red line is crossed, the United States must be able to detect and verify that transgression, having established beforehand what kind and quality of evidence suffices. In the case of Syria, the post facto decision to require United Nations confirmation of the use of chemical weapons has rendered the red line effectively unverifiable.

Third, to be actionable, the verification of the red line must be credible. Policymakers and the public alike must trust the evidence of any transgression to support a response, especially a military one. But following the Iraq war’s intelligence failures, U.S. intelligence agencies will be reluctant to declare, and Americans disinclined to trust, any “smoking gun.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. line for Iran—“we’re not going to accept Iran having a nuclear weapon”—does not meet these three standards; it is not actionable, verifiable, or credible.

Merely possessing the components of a nuclear device—a delivery mechanism, the explosive device, and fissile material—would not trigger this red line. Only the assembly of these components could. That can be done quickly in a small facility. Thus, with the red line drawn at the possession of nuclear weapons, the United States is committed to detecting and acting on Iran’s decision to screw together a bomb.

It would be next-to-impossible to verify such a decision, and any source that could detect it would necessarily be covert, and thus, not widely credible. Even if the information were verified and credible, it is unlikely there would be enough time available to take action.

To reestablish the credibility and efficacy of his Iranian red line against Iran, President Obama should reformulate it so that it is actionable, verifiable, and credible.

First, the red line should be drawn at nuclear weapons capability. It is easier to detect whether Iran has the components for a nuclear weapon than to determine if it has decided to assemble them. This is especially true of fissile material. It is technically the hardest and most time-consuming part of a nuclear weapon to produce, and the process is already monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which regularly observes and verifies Iran’s progress in enriching uranium. While in the case of Syria relying on United Nations inspectors weakens the American red line, in the case of Iran it strengthens it.

Second, the red line should afford sufficient time for action. Once Iran has enough highly enriched uranium—only 20 kilograms, an amount relatively easy to transport and hide—it will become hard to prevent it from assembling a nuclear weapon. Thus, to be effective, the red line must be drawn before Iran is capable of producing sufficient fissile material faster than the IAEA can detect it and the United States can react.

For this reason, the administration should require a regularly released, credible assessment of IAEA data that details how much time Iran would need to produce fissile material and how soon it might reach nuclear weapons capability. Such a proposal is already contained in bipartisan sanctions legislation currently before the House and Senate. Congress would do well to pass these bills, and President Obama to sign them into law.

Poorly designed red lines are difficult to enforce; unenforced red lines erode security. The Syrian example provides a teachable moment, demonstrating that red lines need to be actionable, verifiable, and credible. It is not too late for President Obama to learn this lesson and draw a new red line that can serve to prevent a nuclear weapons capable Iran.

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on June 6, 2013