LONDON — Much has been said and written about "red lines," since Syria allegedly crossed one last month that U.S. President Barack Obama had emphasized a year earlier. Expected U.S. airstrikes did not follow, and now experts wonder whether other international "red lines" will be respected, notably the one on Iran and nuclear weapons.
Iran’s new president heads to New York next week for the U.N. General Assembly, where many hope for a new start in the effort to ensure that his country does not build a nuclear weapon. In recent days, President Hassan Rouhani has exchanged conciliatory letters with President Obama, ordered the release of 11 political prisoners and said Iran will never become a nuclear power.
But the international community wants to keep the pressure on Iran, through sanctions and threats of force. And since President Obama decided not to bomb Syria after it allegedly used chemical weapons - crossing what became known as ‘Obama’s Red Line’ - concerns were raised that Iran might feel freer to move toward nuclear weapons.
"First of all, I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line," said President Obama.
The president was referring to the 1925 Geneva Protocol that bans chemical weapons worldwide.
If the international community, in particular the United States, will not use force to back up that longstanding ban, Iranian journalist Amir Taheri says it will be more difficult to put pressure on Iran to limit its nuclear program.
”The position was already weakened. But the Syria retreat has weakened the U.S. position further," said Taheri.
But not all experts agree that the Syria chemical issue is directly linked to the Iran nuclear issue. The head of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, John Chipman, says the Syrian attack presented a unique challenge, and the response is not necessarily a precedent.
“You wouldn’t necessarily see the way in which the Syrian crisis, especially in the last few weeks, has been handled as ruling the way in which the Obama Administration or any future U.S. administration would face a different security crisis in both the Middle East and the Asia Pacific," said Chipman.
Experts note the potential danger from Iran's getting nuclear weapons is far greater than the concern about chemical weapons in Syria.
And Amir Taheri says Iran would be wise not to test whether President Obama would enforce the ‘red line’ on its nuclear program.
“Of course, you know one must not forget that the U.S. remains the major power in the world, and it should never be underestimated," he said.
And some experts say the current plan for Syria to give up its chemical weapons through diplomacy enforces the ‘red line’ enough to signal Iran that it, too, would face damaging consequences if it moved to become a nuclear power.