I don’t know if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a hockey fan, but I hope he was watching the opening game of the National Hockey League championship series April 30 in St. Louis. It held a useful lesson for Middle East diplomats.
The home team, the St. Louis Blues, isn’t what you’d call championship material. They’ve never won the coveted Stanley Cup. They haven’t even reached the finals since 1970. But this year might be different, if April 30 was any indication.
Their opponents were the defending champion Los Angeles Kings. The game was tied 1-1 when the regulation third period ended, triggering overtime. Twelve minutes later, a St. Louis defenseman was sidelined for injuring an opponent. The penalty left the Blues a player short, dimming their chances.
Seconds later, the Blues’ Alex Steen grabbed the puck from the Kings goalie, who had skated behind the goal, leaving the front unguarded. Steen deftly slipped the puck over the red goal line and into the empty net, winning the game.
The moral: Red lines are there to be crossed. If you’re on top and you want to stay there, don’t get caught on the wrong side of a red line.
Western leaders seem lately to be tripping over red lines with embarrassing frequency. President Obama identified one on August 20, 2012, when he warned Syria’s Bashar al-Assad of “enormous consequences” if chemical weapons enter the civil war. “A red line for us,” he said, “is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around.”
Well, we’ve started seeing the weapons. It sounds like the red line has been crossed. It’s unclear, though. We don’t know if it was “a whole bunch” or, more likely, just a smidgeon. This is critical. The point of chemical weapons is to blanket an area and cause mass deaths. Current reports show only a handful of deaths. Perhaps it wasn’t a tactical deployment. Was the regime toying with Obama, testing him? Did a rogue unit finagle a canister or two? If so, were they regime or rebels? Was a red line really crossed? If it was, who do we go after?
Obama tried to explain the complexities to reporters April 30, concluding, “I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.” Translation: I know I laid down a red line, but I’m not sure where it is.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew an even starker line last September 27, a month after Obama’s ultimatum. Now he’s in an even bigger pickle. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, he waved a cartoon bomb bisected by a fat red line. This, he said, was the threshold where Iran enriches enough uranium for a bomb — 250 kilograms, purified to a consistency of 20% fissionable U-235 isotope. That can be refined in just six months or so to 25 kilograms at bomb-grade 90% purity, enough for one bomb.
If the mullahs can’t be convinced to stop short of that red line, 250 kilos of 20% fissile, they’ll have to be stopped by force.
Some leading experts believe Iran has already crossed the red line — or, more precisely, sidestepped it. In February the International Atomic Energy Agency said the regime had produced 170 kilos of the threshold 20% material. Tel Aviv University’s authoritative Institute of National Security Studies said in an April 23 study that Tehran is deliberately staying below the 250-kilo threshold. Instead it’s adding new centrifuges, increasing its enrichment capacity.
Now it can keep its stockpile at lower grade, to avoid trouble. If it decides it’s safe to proceed, it can reach the 90% finish line in the same quick sprint that Netanyahu’s 250-kilo red line was meant to cordon off.
As the institute director, Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief, explained in an April 23 speech, Iran can remain just shy of Netanyahu’s red line indefinitely, watching and waiting, steadily shortening its breakout time by adding centrifuges and bulking its low-grade supply.
This puts Netanyahu in a tight spot. By his own logic, he should be attacking Iran’s centrifuges already. His defense chiefs say he has the means. But they also say it’s a bad idea.
He’s just been visited in a single month by a parade of America’s highest officials, the president, secretary of state and secretary of defense. They didn’t come to tour Yad Vashem. According to senior Israeli defense insiders, the Americans came to deliver the message that Israel mustn’t attack on its own. America is in a better position to do the job. And it will, if and when it concludes Iran has entered the final sprint. Until then, Netanyahu must trust Obama.
Can he trust Obama? The president drew a red line on Syria’s chemical weapons, but didn’t act. Is that an indicator of what he’ll do on Iran?
Addressing a Likud meeting on April 29, Netanyahu decided to punt. Iran, he said, “has yet to cross the red line I presented at the United Nations, but it is approaching it systematically. It must not be allowed to cross it.” Translation: If they’re sidestepping my red line, I’m off the hook.
Yadlin, addressing a conference on Israeli security April 28 in New York, argued that the whole idea of red lines is “problematic.” Red lines are a virtual invitation to an enemy to evade, sidestep and circumvent. He urged a strategy of maintaining the broadest international pressure, keeping Tehran off balance so it continues to believe the price of building a bomb is too high.
Echoing a string of senior security professionals who’ve discussed the issue, Yadlin said Israel “needs the international community” to maintain the pressure. And should an attack become necessary — the fallout, while severe, would be “less than the consequences of a nuclear Iran” — the international community will need to help keep Iran from rebuilding its nukes.
“We have to pay attention that we are not paying both prices — that you bomb Iran and you still get a nuclear Iran.”
What’s to be done? Montreal hockey legend Yvan Cournoyer, who won more Stanley Cup championships than almost any player in history (only his teammate Henri Richard surpassed him), was once asked what the secret was to winning games.
“Well,” he said, after thinking hard, “you’ve got to shoot that puck.”
If only Middle East politics were that straightforward.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-Large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).