Syria, Iran and the red lines trap

Syria, Iran and the red lines trap

Joel Rubin
Joel Rubin

WASHINGTON — In foreign policy, “red lines,” or public statements of policy boundaries, are often set by one nation to make it clear to another that, if the red line is breached, there will be consequences.  Setting a red line can be a very powerful tool for advancing a particular policy.

It can also fail to achieve its objective, potentially leaving the red line setter with limited options or in need of awkward repositioning.

Therefore, the art of setting a red line is to make it powerful enough to achieve one’s objective yet nimble enough to avoid trapping its setter into taking an action that would be counterproductive.

It’s a delicate balancing act. And in the cases of both Syria and Iran, it is essential that red lines be understood for what they are and for what they are not.

On April 26, President Obama set a public red line against the “systematic” use of chemical weapons against civilian populations in Syria.  He made it clear that crossing this threshold would have consequences, and he deliberately chose not to identify them.  The result of this red line, as well as previous ones set by the president on this topic, was to create enough ambiguity about American intentions to make Syrian President Bashar al-Assad think twice about using these heinous weapons in a systematic manner.

How long American statements can deter Assad is unclear, but so far, the red line seems to have had the desired impact.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s critics — many of whom favor American military action in Syria — have instead argued that red lines should serve as a tripwire for war against Syria, ignoring the potential pitfalls that such a war could bring.  

For these critics, the focus of their critique about the Syrian red line is no longer about the disaster that is taking place inside Syria, which is what Obama is focused on, but is instead about ambiguous concepts such as “credibility,” a view that has sucked America into wars before, including Vietnam.  

As a result, the red line, rather than reinforcing Obama’s policy of ramping up pressure on Assad, has instead become a policy trap that Obama’s domestic political opponents are more than happy to exploit.

So how would this type of situation work for Obama’s policy toward Iran, where the president’s critics have vociferously demanded that he set a red line?  Here, we already have one example of such a red line, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set, and the results are mixed.

Last fall, Netanyahu set a red line tied to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which stated that Iran should not be allowed to create one bomb’s worth of 20 percent enriched uranium.  The downside of this red line was that it provided Iran with an excuse to do everything but reach that red line, without fear of military consequence. And Iran very well may have, as it continues to grow a nuclear infrastructure that causes great concern, but has carefully stopped short of the Netanyahu red line, thereby avoiding military action against it.

Imagine what the net result would be if President Obama were to set a very clear public red line against Iran?  At a minimum, judging by the results of the Netanyahu red line and the Syrian example, Iran would continue to push the limits of its nuclear program and Obama would be pressured by his opponents into starting a war with Iran.  

Such an outcome would prematurely limit Obama’s policy options and his ability to cement a negotiated solution on Iran’s nuclear program.  He would be trapped because his domestic critics, just like they are doing now over the Syria red line, would take him to task for not following through on enforcing such a red line, and by extension, starting a new American war in the Middle East.  

Yet, while that is exactly what some of Obama’s critics want, it’s not what the American people want.  According to a recent New York Times poll, the public strongly supports refraining from military intervention in Syria. Americans also clearly favor diplomacy and economic sanctions instead of military action to address the Iranian nuclear standoff.

It’s clear that in the case of Iran, a hard red line is both bad policy and bad politics.

So we should learn the lesson of the president’s red lines on Syria and Israel’s red lines on Iran when dealing with Iran in the days ahead.  Red lines should be clear enough to make our adversary nervous about crossing an ambiguous but well understood threshold.  But they should not be so clear that they either give a permission slip for bad behavior or tie our hands to a military response that may be premature and counterproductive.  

And despite the criticism, President Obama should stick to his red line policy toward Syria and avoid advancing a red line policy toward Iran that will tie his hands. That may frustrate his domestic critics, but it makes America’s adversaries nervous.  And this is exactly where we should want our country’s foreign policy to be.

(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at or His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)