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.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
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?

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs