The Red Line for Iran

As President Barack Obama is set to address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Sunday, policymakers around the world will be paying close attention to how he phrases his administration’s policy toward Iran’s nuclear development.  In recent days and months, some senior administration officials have a drawn a “red line” against Iranian “development of a nuclear weapon,” while others have stated the intention is to prevent Iran achieving “nuclear weapons capability.” The difference in language is significant, so the confusion is potentially dangerous. The more provable and preventable nuclear threshold is Iranian weapons capability.

On April 5, 2010 President Obama made an important distinction, acknowledging that Iran’s “current course… would provide them with nuclear weapons capabilities.” When pressed whether he “could live with a nuclear-capable Iran,” but not “a nuclear weapons state in Iran,” Obama replied that he was “not going to parse that right now.” Other senior officials have parsed it but without resolution.

On December 1, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said international efforts were “critical to…preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.” The very next day Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared that “to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons…. That is a red line.” Panetta has since repeated this red line four times. Yet, Panetta released in January strategic guidance for the Department of Defense that states “defense efforts in the Middle East will be aimed…to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapon capability.”

This confusion became acute this past Wednesday, February 29, when senior administration officials gave conflicting statements almost within minutes of each other. When Rep. Howard Berman (D, California), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to clarify the administration’s position, she responded, “I think it’s absolutely clear that the president’s policy is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability.” Yet, that same day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “Well, I think I’ve been clear that we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” The one word difference in these formulations is a crucial distinction, one that the administration should resolve and clarify.

A country can be considered to have developed a nuclear weapon once it has assembled the three main components of a nuclear weapon and successfully tested it. First, fissile material; either highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium, that can release massive, destructive amounts of energy. Second, the device, or “weapon,” which creates the nuclear explosion by triggering a nuclear chain reaction in the fissile material.  Third, a delivery mechanism—bomb, missile, or some unconventional means—that gets the weapon to its target.

A nuclear weapons capability is achieved when a country has all the requisite technology and components, but has not yet assembled them or tested a weapon. It is this eventuality that the Obama administration should be aiming to prevent, as suggested by bipartisan resolutions in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Even though Iran has made advances in all three components of a nuclear weapon, it could delay assembling and testing it. As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly warned in a memo to the White House shortly before he resigned, Iran might “assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.” This could allow Iran, especially if the official U.S. red line is weapons development, to achieve the political impact of nuclear weapons without risking U.S. military action.

More important, Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapons capability is more easily verified than weaponization. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors routinely monitor and report on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, albeit based on access Iran allows to known facilities. And it is its enrichment program that is the best indicator of Iran’s progress toward weapons capability.

Fissile material production has historically been the most difficult and time-intensive hurdle to developing nuclear weapons. Thus, if Iran begins producing highly enriched uranium, policymakers will have to assume Iran has achieved nuclear weapons capability. Fortunately, IAEA reports provide credible data about how close Iran is to crossing this threshold and are the best hope for detecting, and preventing, Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Determining whether Iran is building a nuclear device, however, is exceedingly difficult. Panetta testified before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee on February 16: “If . . . we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it.” However, international inspectors have been routinely denied access to nuclear-related military facilities. Also, given the uproar over faulty intelligence over Iraq’s nuclear program preceding the 2003 war, U.S. intelligence agencies will be reluctant to declare any “slam dunks” without an unequivocal, even if hard to obtain, “smoking gun.”

Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies have never before predicted any country’s initial test of a nuclear weapon. Accordingly, if Iran sought to assemble a nuclear weapon, we would likely only detect it after the weapon was tested, by which time it would be too late.

If the administration’s intent is to prevent a nuclear Iran, it should draw a red line that is clear, verifiable and preventable before it is too late. The red line should be nuclear weapons capability, not the imperceptible turning of the screwdriver to assemble a weapon.

Michael Makovsky, a Pentagon official during the George W. Bush administration, directs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Project, including its Iran Initiative, which recently released the report, “Stopping the Clock.” Blaise Misztal is associate director of BPC’s National Security Project.

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on March 2, 2012.