Late last week, amid little fanfare, Senators Joseph Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and Robert Casey introduced a resolution that would move America further down the path toward war with Iran.
The good news is that the resolution hasn’t been universally embraced in the Senate. As Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports, the resolution has “provoked jitters among Democrats anxious over the specter of war.” The bad news is that, as Kampeas also reports, “AIPAC is expected to make the resolution an ‘ask’ in three weeks when up to 10,000 activists culminate its annual conference with a day of Capitol Hill lobbying.”
In standard media accounts, the resolution is being described as an attempt to move the “red line”–the line that, if crossed by Iran, could trigger a US military strike. The Obama administration has said that what’s unacceptable is for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. This resolution speaks instead of a “nuclear weapons capability.” In other words, Iran shouldn’t be allowed to get to a point where, should it decide to produce a nuclear weapon, it would have the wherewithal to do so.
By itself this language is meaninglessly vague. Does “capability” mean the ability to produce a bomb within two months? Two years? If two years is the standard, Iran has probably crossed the red line already. (So should we start bombing now?)
Indeed, by the two-year standard, Iran might well be over the red line even after a bombing campaign–which would at most be a temporary setback, and would remove any doubt among Iran’s leaders as to whether to build nuclear weapons, and whether to make its nuclear program impervious to future American and Israeli bombs.
What do we do then? Invade?
In other words, if interpreted expansively, the “nuclear weapons capability” threshold is a recipe not just for war, but for ongoing war–war that wouldn’t ultimately prevent the building of a nuclear weapon without putting boots on the ground. And it turns out that the authors of this resolution want “nuclear weapons capability” interpreted very expansively.
The key is in the way the resolution deals with the question of whether Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium, as it’s been doing for some time now. The resolution defines as an American goal “the full and sustained suspension” of uranium enrichment by Iran. In case you’re wondering what the resolution’s prime movers mean by that: In a letter sent to the White House on the same day the resolution was introduced, Lieberman, Graham and ten other senators wrote, “We would strongly oppose any proposal that recognizes a ‘right to enrichment’ by the current regime or for [sic] a diplomatic endgame in which Iran is permitted to continue enrichment on its territory in any form.”
This notwithstanding the fact that 1) enrichment is allowed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; (2) a sufficiently intrusive monitoring system can verify that enrichment is for peaceful purposes; (3) Iran’s right to enrich its own uranium is an issue of strong national pride. In a poll published in 2010, after sanctions had already started to bite, 86 percent of Iranians said Iran should not “give up its nuclear activities regardless of the circumstances.” And this wasn’t about building a bomb; most Iranians said Iran’s nuclear activities shouldn’t include producing weapons.
Even Dennis Ross–who has rarely, in his long career as a Mideast diplomat, left much daylight between his positions and AIPAC’s, and who once categorically opposed Iranian enrichment–now realizes that a diplomatic solution may have to include enrichment. Last week in a New York Times op-ed, he said that, contrary to pessimistic assessments, it may still be possible to get a deal that “uses intrusive inspections and denies or limits uranium enrichment [emphasis added]…”
The resolution plays down its departure from current policy by claiming that there have been “multiple” UN resolutions since 2006 demanding the “sustained” suspension of uranium. But the UN resolutions don’t actually use that term. The UN has demanded suspension as a confidence-building measure that could then lead to, as one resolution puts it, a “negotiated solution that guarantees Iran’s nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes.” And various Security Council members who voted on these resolutions have made it clear that Iranian enrichment of uranium can be part of this scenario if Iran agrees to sufficiently tight monitoring.
Indeed, that Iran’s right to enrich uranium could be recognized under those circumstances is, Hillary Clinton has said, “the position of the international community, along with the United States.” If the Lieberman-Graham-Casey resolution guides US policy, says George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that would “preclude” fulfillment of the UN resolutions and isolate the US from the international coalition that backed them.
The Congressional resolution goes beyond the UN resolutions in another sense. It demands an end to Iran’s ballistic missile program. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association notes that, “Even after crushing Iraq in the first Gulf War, the international coalition only imposed a 150-kilometer range ceiling on Saddam’s ballistic missiles. A demand to eliminate all ballistic missiles would be unprecedented in the modern era–removing any doubt among Iranians that the United States was interested in nothing less than the total subjugation of the country.”
On the brighter side: Maybe it’s a good sign that getting significant Democratic buy-in for this resolution took some strong-arming. According to Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now, the resolution got 15 Democratic supporters only “after days of intense AIPAC lobbying, particularly of what some consider ‘vulnerable’ Democrats (vulnerable in terms of being in races where their pro-Israel credentials are being challenged by the candidate running against them).” What’s more, even as AIPAC was playing this hardball, the bill’s sponsors still had to tone down some particularly threatening language in the resolution.
But, even so, the resolution defines keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapons “capability” as being in America’s “vital national interest,” which is generally taken as synonymous with “worth war.” And, though this “sense of Congress” resolution is nonbinding, AIPAC will probably seek unanimous Senate consent, which puts pressure on a president. Friedman says this “risks sending a message that Congress supports war and opposes a realistic negotiated solution or any de facto solution short of stripping Iran of even a peaceful nuclear capacity.”
What’s more, says Friedman, the non-binding status may be temporary. “Often AIPAC-backed Congressional initiatives start as non-binding language (in a resolution or a letter) and then show up in binding legislation. Once members of Congress have already signed on to a policy in non-binding form, it is much harder for them to oppose it when it shows up later in a bill that, if passed, will have the full force of law.”
No wonder Democrats who worry about war have the “jitters.”
Robert Wright is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author, most recently, of The Evolution of God, a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.