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Iran: Red Lines and Grey Areas

Shashank Joshi and Hugh Chalmers
Briefing Papers, 23 April 2013
Proliferation and Nuclear Policy
Iran may inadvertently cross unclear US and Israeli ‘red lines’ on its nuclear programme and trigger military action

By one account, over the past fifteen years Iran’s nuclear programme has crossed no less than seven so-called ‘red lines’ set by the United States or Israel. As Iran has crossed these lines, it has incurred the most punitive and protracted countermeasures ever imposed on a suspected nuclear proliferator. But it has not faced conventional military action. More recently, however, the idiom of war-triggering red lines has become widespread and central to the discourse on Iran.

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This Briefing Paper takes stock of the various war-triggering red lines that Iran’s adversaries have set, and those that they might later set, with a particular focus on those associated with a realistic risk of war. This paper does not endorse the wisdom of imposing these red lines, but rather seeks only to discuss what they mean, how they are expressed, and how they might be interpreted and misinterpreted.

As Iran’s nuclear programme has grown over time, policy-makers have been faced with the question of whether and where they should draw red lines for Tehran. The United States and Israel have already drawn red lines, effectively warning Iran that building nuclear weapons or accumulating too much uranium would trigger war. But even these supposedly clear threats are marked by areas of ambiguity. This leaves unanswered questions as to what would and what would not be seen as grounds for military action – and therefore what Iran might be deterred from doing.

About the Authors

Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow at RUSI and a doctoral student of International Relations at Harvard University’s Department of Government. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East. He holds Master’s degrees from Cambridge and Harvard, and previously graduated with a Starred First in Politics and Economics from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. During 2007–08, he was a Kennedy Scholar from Britain to the United States. He has published peer-reviewed work in academic journals, commented on international affairs for radio and television, and written for newspapers including the New York Times, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and Foreign Policy. Shashank is also author of The Permanent Crisis: Iran’s Nuclear Trajectory (Abingdon: Routledge/RUSI, 2012).

Hugh Chalmers joined RUSI as a Research Analyst in April 2012. His research interests include the management of nuclear technology, nuclear arms control and disarmament, and multilateral regimes. Hugh joined RUSI from a consulting position at the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) where he developed and managed its online content. He has also previously held positions at IHS Jane’s and the King’s College Centre for Science and Security Studies. He holds an MA in Science and Security from King’s College London, where his research focused on nuclear arms control and verification, and a BSc (Hons) in Astrophysics from the University of Edinburgh.

Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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