Is Washington's refusal to set red lines over Iran's nuclear military program spurring Tehran to continue onward, towards nuclear weapons possession, at full speed?
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has issued a call for clear red lines to be defined by the international community. The idea behind the lines is simple: A breach of them by Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons will trigger action against it.
Jerusalem presumably believes that without red lines, Iran will simply not take the threat of military force seriously enough to freeze its uranium enrichment, or enter into further negotiations in any meaningful way.
Washington, saying that the only red line it abides by is the production of nuclear weapons, rejected this call. Any further red lines, President Barack Obama said earlier this month, would constrain the US's room to maneuver.
Furthermore, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, countries are not governed by red lines.
However, as Dr. Emily Landau, a senior arms control expert from Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies pointed out Obama himself used red lines twice this year -- and did so effectively.
In the first instance, when Iran threatened to respond to economic sanctions by closing off the Strait of Hormuz shipping lane, through which much of the world's oil passes, Obama said that doing so would constitute an unacceptable breach of a red line. Sure enough, Iran backed off, and downplayed its own threat within a few weeks.
The second use of a red line came after it emerged that Syrian dictator Basher Assad was moving deadly chemical weapons around Syria. Obama said that any further movements of the unconventional weapons, or signs that they were about to be used, would constitute a breach of a red line. There have been no further reports of chemical weapons on the move in war-torn Syria.
Iran knows that the US is being selective about its use of red lines, and that the Obama Administration is reluctant to use this same pressure mechanism on its nuclear program.
What conclusion is Iran likely to take away? One need look no farther than Iran's rapidly progressing uranium enrichment drive, its continuing refusal to allow IAEA experts access to nuclear facilities, and the fact that no serious negotiations between the P5+1 representatives (the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany) and Iran are on the horizon.
The threat of military force is supposed to be one of three critical pillars of a comprehensive policy to persuade the Iranian regime to stop its march towards atomic bombs.
The second pillar, biting sanctions, is in place, and is taking its toll on the Iranian economy. But the sanctions have utterly failed to convince Tehran to change course on its nuclear program. So long as the worsening Iranian economy does not influence the rate of uranium enrichment, sanctions cannot be considered to have worked.
The third and last pillar, diplomacy, is currently dead in the water, after three failed rounds of negotiations this year.
All three pillars are tied to each other – a structural weakness in one means the other two cannot function properly. In this instance, it is the pillar of a credible military threat that is looking weak, and a refusal to discuss red lines is contributing to that weakness.
Ironically, the less credible the threat of military force is, the more likely it is that military force will eventually have to be used.
Some in the Obama Administration, such as Defense Secretary Panetta, have pointed out that Israel too has not set red lines on Iran. But Israel is not involved in negotiations with Iran, and a red line pressure mechanism would be of no use to Israel -- a fact that makes Panetta's claim appear rather cynical in the eyes of Israeli national security analysts.
There are other factors leading Iran to confirm its belief that the international community is not serious about stopping its nuclear program.
One of them is the public spat between Netanyahu and Obama over these very issues. The open argument, which has escalated into unprecedented feuding via international media outlets, will surely give Iran more cause to trivialize international resolve and unity.
When US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said last month that an Israeli strike would only delay Iranian nuclear progress, but not destroy the program, he seemed to be stating the obvious. Read between the lines, however, and Dempsey appeared to be hinting that a delay caused by an Israeli strike would not be significant.
The comment seemed to be part of an open US media campaign to dissuade Israel from striking. What it may have done instead was damage Israeli deterrence in Iranian eyes.
The lack of red lines, diplomatic arguments among allies, and an unconvincing threat of military force will all lead Iran to move forward on its nuclear program.
In the meantime, it seems fair to believe that Iran is quickly approaching Israel's own, unannounced red line.