Obama Already Has A Red Line

Today on Meet the Press, Benjamin Netanyahu took a considerably softer line on the Obama administration. Last week, responding to Hillary Clinton's refusal to set American deadlines on Iran's nuclear program, Netanyahu exclaimed that those who wouldn't impose "red lines"—listing Iranian moves that would spur Western action—"don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel." But the debate about imposing "red lines" still often elides a key point: Obama has already laid down a marker for Iran.That much became abundantly clear today when, after his message on red lines and red lights was played for him, Netanyahu responded (with my emphasis):

President Obama has said that he's determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. And I appreciate that and I respect that. ...And I can tell you, David, that Iran has been placed with some clear red lines on a few matters. And they've avoided crossing them.

Those "few matters" on which, per Netanyahu, Iran seems to understand it can't advance? "I've stated repeatedly, publicly that red line, and that is we're not going to accept Iran having a nuclear weapon," Obama said this week.

In a post touching on matters of red lines, Jeffrey Goldberg, who was also on Meet the Press, wrote that the administration "would like to keep their red lines hidden from the Iranians," by which he means not publicly proclaim "precisely what might spark the U.S. into action."

Goldberg's partly right: Netanyahu has called for a "clear red line"—but that's the same phrase he used today when describing Obama red lines that are already in force! Netanyahu also strongly hinted that his own red line would be on the near side of "capability," rather than production: "I think it's important for anyone who's the president of the United States to be in that position of preventing Iran from having this nuclear weapon and nuclear weapons capability." (On CNN, Netanyahu made many of the same points, but was less clear about nuclear weapons capability versus production: "I think the issue is how to prevent Iran from completing its nuclear weapons program.")

Furthermore, outlining precisely which specific Iranian steps might spur U.S. action has already, to some degree, occurred. Iran knows full well what not to do. Obama administration officials have specifically mentioned handing down a decision to produce a weapon and enriching uranium to weapons-grade. And withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty or kicking out U.N. nuclear inspectors would implicitly do the same thing. Any such moves would be seen as evidence of Iranian intent to produce nuclear weapons, thus crossing Obama's red line.

This flap has not been about imposing a red line, but about shifting it—from actual weapons production to the capability to produce weapons—something elucidated even in the pages of the neoconservative Weekly Standard. Meet the Press host David Gregory asked U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice about it. Why, in an otherwise tough interview, he didn't ask Netanyahu to expound the distinction is beyond me.