Invisible Red Line: The Futility of Trying to Detect an Iranian Order to Build the Bomb

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 174

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: At what point will Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons necessitate Western military action against it? What would constitute the proverbial crossing of a “red line”? 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? 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 line” marker. 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 infrastructure.

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 declared red line, will act cautiously and deliberately try to deceive foreign agencies watching the Iranian decision-making process.

Overt Parameters

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 statement in 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 that Israel’s Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, has apparently subscribed to. 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.

Covert Parameters

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’s finds different information a problem could arise. If the US and Israel 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 results. 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 against Iran.

An Alternative Red Line

Contrary to the DNI, US Secretary of 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 President’s thinking.

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 Israel 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 paramount one.

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 red line. 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 Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Dany Shoham, a microbiologist and senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is recognized as a top Israeli expert on chemical and biological warfare in the Middle East. He is a former senior intelligence analyst in the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Email: [email protected]

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael Ofek
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Raphael Ofek

Former senior analyst in IDF military intelligence and the Prime Minister’s Office. Specializes in WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) proliferation in the Middle East and North Korea. (Ph.D. Ben-Gurion University). Email: [email protected]