On Nuclear Capability: Drawing Red Lines in a Gray Area

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Written by Mark Donig and Jaclyn Tandler, Guest Contributors

Last Monday, in his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual Policy Conference, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr delivered a clear message aimed not only at the 13,000 in the audience, but to all members of Congress: Iran must be “prevent(ed)…from ever having a nuclear weapons capability.” Kohr’s message was echoed four days later by Senators Robert Casey (D-PA), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who published an op-ed supporting new legislation (S. Res 380) that calls on the United States to move its red line on Iran from acquisition of a nuclear weapon to development of a nuclear weapons capability. The concern behind both appeals is that by the time Iran might cross the Obama administration’s current red line, it would be too late to take effective action to prevent Tehran becoming nuclear-armed.

Yet for all the talk of nuclear capability as a red line, the concept of capability has little clear technical definition. Additionally, with President Obama continuing to press diplomatic options, it is questionable whether the Administration would consider enforcing a bill that would make military action against Iran even more likely. For these reasons, both Kohr’s call and S380 actually raise more questions than they answer.

From a technical standpoint, the term “capability” is ambiguous. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear body, does not define “nuclear weapons capability,” nor does AIPAC’s Legislative Agenda, the Senators’ op-ed, or S380 itself. In reality, possessing a nuclear capability could mean anything from having the infrastructure and know-how of a civilian nuclear program (like Japan) to possessing a dedicated nuclear weapons program just short of testing a nuclear weapon (like Pakistan before 1998). “Capability” is a spectrum, not a clear line that is either crossed or not.

A viable nuclear weapons program requires three components: enough fissile material for a small arsenal, a proven weapon design, and a nuclear-capable delivery system. While the most recent IAEA report indicates that Iran is pursuing activities in all three areas, the question remains: To what degree would Iran need to progress in each domain in order to be considered “nuclear capable”? Until this question is answered, the term “capability” is not a sufficiently specific to be meaningful.

As such, while some proponents of S380 argue that moving up the Obama administration’s red line would fulfill the goal of aligning U.S. policy toward Iran with Israel’s, the definitional obscurity hinders this objective. One cannot assume that a shared U.S.-Israeli understanding of capability – let alone common red lines – is likely to result from this legislative action.

Beyond the issue of ambiguity, the problem of enforcement remains. Even if Congress passes the bill, it would have to be accepted and enforced by an Obama administration reluctant to commit the U.S military to yet another Middle East conflict, particularly if doing so would risk shaking a recovering election-year economy amidst steadily rising gas prices. Additionally, in light of the ongoing U.S.-led global sanctions effort, President Obama will be especially recalcitrant to alienate allies by drawing a militarily-backed red line at a level the rest of the international community opposes.

Proponents of the bill may point to other instances – namely, pushing for sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank – in which Congress successfully pressured a cautious administration to tighten the noose around the Iranian regime. Yet the two are not analogous; in matters of war, only the commander-in-chief has the power to choose whether or not to commit troops. If the Obama administration remains resolute in defining the Iran red line as nuclear weapon acquisition rather than capability, then Congressional intrusion on foreign policy is rendered impotent.

It should be noted that while the technical and practical applications of S380 are seemingly meaningless now, the political implications may not be for long. If the bill gains steam in the House and Senate – which, with AIPAC’s backing, it very well could – the issue of capability could turn into a political battle, despite the definitional problems noted above. In the event that it does, escalating pressure from both sides of the aisle may drive a wedge between the White House and Capitol Hill.

Iran’s continued defiance, the heat of the election season, and Washington’s consistent bipartisan support for Israel may create the perfect storm for confrontation within Washington over red lines. Yet without either a clear definition of those lines or a President inclined to enforce them, the fight may amount to little more than a battle over semantics.

Mark Donig is a former Dean’s Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center, Lauder School of Government’s Herzliya’s Program for the Diplomatic Corps.

Jaclyn Tandler is a Junior Fellow with the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters