News / Middle East

Decoding Netanyahu's 'Red Line' Against Iran

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he drew on the graphic of a bomb used to represent Iran's nuclear program as he addressed the 67th United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 27, 2012.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he drew on the graphic of a bomb used to represent Iran's nuclear program as he addressed the 67th United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 27, 2012.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a bright red line across a drawing of a bomb representing Iran’s nuclear program at the U.N. General Assembly, he used a phrase that has bled into the vernacular: Red line.

"I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down and this will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program all together,” he told world leaders gathered in New York on Thursday.

He didn’t invent the phrase, which has been related to military conflicts for at least a century, but he has given it a new spin.

Defining the term

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “red line” as the center of an ice hockey rink or a mark on a gauge indicating a safety limit or critical point. It also lists it as a reference to British soldiers' iconic red uniforms.

One of the expression’s earliest appearances came in the 1850s, when the "thin red line" was used to describe the British army at the battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, according to Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for The Boston Globe newspaper.

"There was a regiment of Scottish soldiers who wore red coats, and they were holding off the Russians in the battle,” he said. “They became known as the ‘thin red line,’ and that became a famous expression to refer to the British army."

Years later in 1962, author James Jones named his novel about World War II "The Thin Red Line," which was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1998.

Lines in the sand

Post World War II, the phrase found a home in the Middle East, according to Ben Yagoda, an English professor at the University of Delaware and author of the upcoming book "How to Not Write Bad.”

He said it was used to describe physical lines drawn in a conflict between Chad and Libya, as reported by the New York Times in 1987. The same newspaper in 1999 quoted an Iranian cleric who asked his country’s top leaders to define a "red line" for the revolution that no one would be allowed to cross.

"Kav adom,” the Hebrew equivalent of “red line,” might have been the first appearance of the phrase in the region, said Zimmer.

"The earliest example that I’ve seen is from 1975, and a quote from the Israeli foreign minister, Yigal Allon, who said at the time, 'Washington has managed to draw a red line, which all the Arab countries know they must not cross, then America is not going to sacrifice Israel for Arab support,'" Zimmer said, adding that Netanyahu may be using “red line” because of its historical resonance.

The power of language

The Israeli leader’s frequent calls for the United States to establish a “red line” with Iran have headlined newspapers around the world and influenced a key foreign policy debate in the U.S. presidential race.

Jonathan Schell, a lecturer on nuclear issues at Yale University in Connecticut, said Netanyahu is using a bold but vague phrase to apply pressure on the United States.

“It’s very good for creating an impression of almost an ultimatum, and in this case to the United States, not to Iran," he said, noting that Netanyahu has suggested if Tehran passes the "red line," the U.S. should attack.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican rival in the presidential race, have used the phrase “red line” and said a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. But they have not defined what action they would take, or when, to prevent that.

Until the U.S. presidential election is decided in November, both Romney and Obama will be speaking with the Israeli leader about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, at least in shades of gray - if not in black and white.  

Additional reporting by Avi Arditti.

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by: Maoiodeirg from: Éire
October 05, 2012 5:37 PM
It now looks as if Netanyahu and Barak believe they have done enough to convince the Israeli electorate that they should be returned to power in an early election. Both of them have hyped the nuclear issue as far as it will go and believe that waiting too long will prove that there is no real nuclear threat, which coincidently would guarantee their defeat in an election. Neither of them care a jot for the thousands of lives that would be lost by Israeli and US young men and women

by: kamal from: Morocco
October 01, 2012 1:20 PM
I think that there is no serious threat in the world like the Israeli threat. if Iran have only the ambitions to make nuclear weapons, Israel already have nuclear weapons...

by: kattalker from: usa
October 01, 2012 11:42 AM
Yes a line drawn,so send your own people to war,we send you our money I am sure your old people live better than ours, you have what we have ,now you want more of our boys to be killed for your aggression,you trained your whole country to go to war ,use it,I do not believe the people of Israel want to go to war either. It is just big business who makes a profit from it.Shame on you warmongers.

by: ali baba from: new york
October 01, 2012 5:13 AM
If isreal want attack iran to destroy nuclear reactor facalities, please do it .do not wait for Us to do it .do it fast.
In Response

by: ali baba from: new york
October 01, 2012 3:33 PM
If iran has nuclear bomb ,it may be a nuclear war in middle east. it is better to dismantle iran facility by any means necessary.Attacking and destroy iran nuclear reactor is appropriate and save life.
In Response

by: kattalker from: usa
October 01, 2012 12:43 PM
enough of this war talk, lets be civilized and not use war to solve issues,we should know better by no,Israel should know better.

by: S.H.Huang from: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
September 30, 2012 10:19 AM
While we could say rightly that Israeli Prime Minister is putting pressure on both US Presidential candidates to make a firm stand on Iran by drawing a " red line " , could you fault him for asking America to draw that red line? After all, his only ally is US; and
" a friend in need is a friend indeed " , he is merely calling for help, as he sees the fire ahead; and he feels that he must act fast before the fire starts. Calling the fire brigade to be on standy is to make contigency plans. A General must have a few options ready before he goes into battle. Will US be ready to help out if and when he makes a pre-empti ve strike? Can we remember the six-day Middle East War? It was the shortest, most effective and cost-effective war in living memory!Israel, being a small nation and surrounded by hostile forces which wanted to decimate the nation, could not afford a long-drawn-out war. Look at wars where America, for example, was involved. All those wars were long affairs and cost great losses in materials, men, money. Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan, to name a few.How much money was wasted? How many lives were lost? How many war materials were used? Can Israel afford to go for along war? Obviously not! US should learn a leason from History and from Israel how wars could be fought and fought effectively! Regrettably, US has not learnt from History; and thus has been making mistake after mistake. No nation, no matter how big or powerful, could fight a successful war on foreign soil with difficult terrain and for a long haul.Learn from Israel: North Korea, for example, has been brandishing her sabre and Iran, too, has shown its bravado in the world arena. Would Israel if she were in American shoes care about the sbare-rattling by the two nations? No, it would not be cowed! However, she would draw a "red line " , as she is now asking US to do. " Cross that line, we shall hammer you very hard and put you out of business! " Israel would say.No amount of words of threat will do; they must be backed with DEEDS , lest they would call it a bluff!So, Israel is calling upon her friend, US, to draw that red line! But, US Presidnetial candidates are in the midst of campaign and their hands are full!Could they divert their energy towards war preparation, if war really breaks out between Israel and Iran? Undoubtedly, both are in a dilemma. But leadership is tested in a crisis and not in peace time!

by: Maoildeirg from: Éire
September 28, 2012 5:23 PM
Whoever says that Israel, in the form of Netanyahu, is not trying to influence the outcome of the US presidential election by trying to blackmail the candidates into making a statement, of Israel's choosing, about Iran's nuclear ambitions, is delusional. It is as plain as the nose on your face that Israel believes it is entitled to dictate US foreign policy in the Middle East. If Netanyahu says to the candidates, that "they should Jump for him", their response should be, "How high should I jump for you".
In Response

by: JULIUS OMOLE from: SHANDS HOSPITAL
September 29, 2012 10:39 AM
There is no question, that Netanyahu wants to pressure U S into another bloody conflicts in the middle east.
l have no doubt, that his intention was to influence the outcome of the ongoing presidential election, if he is stupid enough to believe that the voters of this country are not aware of his dumb trick and repeated denial, @ least he should know that no one is in the dark about his long friendship with Romney, the man he desperately wants to be the president.
The problem is that,there will never be a " Romney white house"
This country has been a close friend of the jewish state long before Netanyahu and has always committed more resources to defend the state than any other country, for this stupid arrogant idiot to want to influence the current election by his shameful display of bomb narrative on the floor of the world body is beyond insult to anyone that is present and have to listen to his idiotic narrative.
In Response

by: S.H. Huang from: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
September 29, 2012 7:30 AM
Drawing a "red line" , drawing even a line in the sand, is to show the world that " the buck stops here" ( President Harry Truman ) who took personal responsibility in ordering the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and that strong, firm leadership requires making a firm decision. " Cross that red line , I shall take firm action; and don't tell me that you do not understand my warning" seems to be Israel's Prime Minister's warning. Getting US to commit itself to that red line is play hard ball with both Presidnetial candidates; and force their hands on that issue of Israeli survival. It is indeed a tough call! Will Obama or Romney make the stand?

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