Op-Ed: Iranian Red Lines-Can We Detect When They are Crossed? (INN) ISRAEL NATIONAL NEWS) Lt.Cols. (res.) Drs. Dany Shoham & Raphael Ofek 07/23/12)
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At what point will Iran´s drive for nuclear weapons necessitate
Western military action? Would it be an authoritative order by
Iranian leadership to actually assemble a bomb, or is it when Iran
enters a "zone of immunity" from military strike?
What would constitute the proverbial crossing of a "red line" for
This paper argues that it is practically impossible and very unlikely
that Western intelligence could detect an unambiguous order from
Iranian leadership to build a nuclear bomb, making this an unwise"red
Instead, the threshold at which no practical surgical operation can
deprive Iran of its nuclear capability is a much more relevant "red
line" on Iran’s path to nuclearization.
It has become clear that the US Director of National Intelligence
(DNI) – the principal adviser to the president for strategic
intelligence – openly and unambiguously regards an explicit order
from the Iranian leadership to build a nuclear bomb as the red line
in the Iranian nuclear program. Such an order would presumably
trigger American military action against the Iranian nuclear
However, it is highly doubtful whether such an order from the Iranian
leadership ought to be expected or whether it is at all detectable.
Therefore, the red line might effectively be invisible.
Detection of an order from the top of Iran’s decision-making
apparatus can be made through either overt or covert means, each one
fraught with enormous difficulties. One can also assume that the
Iranians, being aware of this openly declaredred line, will act
cautiously and deliberately try to deceive foreign agencies watching
the Iranian decision-making process.
In February 2012, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated during a speech to a
group of Iranian nuclear scientists that Iran logically, religiously,
and theoretically considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave
sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons to be senseless,
destructive, and dangerous.
One can interpret this statementi n two equally plausible, yet
contrasting, ways. Either Khamenei sincerely meant what he said, and
Iran holds no interest in pursuing a nuclear weapon, or his statement
is designed to deliberately mislead and conceal an Iranian ambition
to pursue the bomb. The Iranian profile of conduct has for years
signified the latter possibility as the most probable one.
This second possibility is the one to which Israel’s Minister of
Defense, Ehud Barak, has apparently subscribed. He has said that
Khamenei’s statement isn’t convincing and has noted the Islamic
fundamental tenet of “al-taqqiya,” which acts as a license from
heaven for a Muslim to lie and mislead in order to achieve a cardinal
goal. This practice is especially common among the Shia. Thus,
Khamenei, or any Iranian authority, has a religious privilege to
deceive by declaring Iran “innocent” of the nuclear “grave sin” while
surreptitiously committing the “sinful” act.
Relying on Iranian rhetoric, or overt signals, can be fatal. While
covert methods are more reliable, they are also far from foolproof.
In this case, the vulnerabilities involved in covert tracking exist
at both stages of intelligence: collection and data processing.
Intelligence collection can be achieved by monitoring either the flow
of given orders, whether issued by Khamenei directly or through the
chain of command under him, or the potential Iranian installations
where a bomb can successfully be built. The feasibility of detecting
an authoritative order through either of these paths is questionable,
at the least.
Regardless of the challenges inherent in intelligence collection,
there remains an additional obstacle with regard to intelligence
processing: confirming the veracity of the collected information. An
important issue is whether such monitoring is based on joint US-
Israel intelligence resources or is conducted unilaterally.
If conducted jointly, it is critical that the two countries share the
same intelligence and reach similar conclusions; if each country
finds different information, a problem could arise. If the US andI
srael each take a unilateral course, then in addition to lack of
redundancy, one party would have to take the uncomfortable position
of being dependent on the intelligence findings of the other.
Ideally, the concurrent bilateral monitoring and sharing would be
complete, but it is unclear whether this is actually taking place.
All in all, it follows that depending on overt or covert intelligence
to determine whether the red line – an order from the mullahs to
build a bomb – has been crossed, produces unacceptably ambiguous
This outcome is also a result of the weak assumption that such an
order has not already been given. It does not take great strategic
acumen to accept the possibility of an already existing order from
the Iranian leadership to develop and produce nuclear weapons as
quickly as possible, yet in a way that does not bring about an attack
An Alternative Red Line
Contrary to the DNI, US Secretaryof Defense Leon Panetta noted that
he does not have any specific information indicating whether the
Iranians have made a decision one way or the other to build a nuclear
weapon. This position reflects the uncertainty surrounding the issue
and acknowledges the possibility that an order to build the bomb
might already have been given.
As CIA director until June 2011, Panetta’s attitude towards that
issue seems to be experienced, responsible, and sound. Presently,
Panetta’s role is to convince the White House of a more clearly-
defined definition of the red line than the DNI’s definition. It is
unclear, however, whether Panetta’s judgment has influenced the
The DNI’s current red line is highly undependable, as Panetta has
indirectly pointed out. The threshold at which Iran enters
the “immunity zone,” i.e. when no practical surgical operation can
deprive Iran of its nuclear capability, is a much more vital point on
Iran’s path to nuclearization. This alternative red line is
independent of the authoritative-order red line, since it reflects
the point at which it would become impractical to effectively attack
Iranian nuclear sites due to their number, location, and degree of
protection, as well as the amount of uranium being enriched.
Israel is deeply concerned about Iran’s ability to reach the point of
nuclear breakthrough, at which it would be only months away from
completing a bomb, despite international supervision and efforts.
Israel’s position vis-à-vis the red line should – and is likely
inclined to – adhere to the immunity zone determinant, an approach
favored by Ehud Barak. However, since the US has a greater military
capability than Israe,l it can afford to strike Iran at a later date,
and as a result the date on which Iran enters the immunity zone is
later for the US than it is for Israel. Despite this major
difference between the US and Israel, this determinant is the
Altogether, it appears that the boundary between “too early” and “too
late” to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities is slim. The red line
of an Iranian authoritative order to build the bomb is important, yet
much less relevant than the immunity zone redline.
With all of the uncertainty surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue, it
is essential that the United States adopt a realistic red line.
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 174, publishedthrough the
generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family
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