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US Iran Hawks in Congress in Some Disarray

by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Hopes by Iran hawks here to get the U.S. Congress to wield the threat of a U.S. military attack on the Islamic Republic on the eve of next week's critical negotiations on Tehran's nuclear program appear to have fallen unexpectedly short.

While the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Thursday to reject "any U.S. policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran", a key co-sponsor of the resolution emphatically denied that the measure was intended to authorize the use of military force and asserted that Tehran would have to test a warhead before it could be considered "nuclear weapons capable".

At the same time, the House leadership was poised to accept an amendment to the otherwise hawkish 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that declares explicitly "that nothing in this Act shall be construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran." The NDAA, as amended, is expected to clear the House Friday.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Capitol Hill, a tough new sanctions bill that was supposed to sail through the Senate Thursday was blocked by some Republicans who said it was insufficiently hawkish.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, one of several influential Republicans who have long urged Washington to prepare for war with Iran, angrily denounced the absence of any reference to possible U.S. military action if Iran fails to abandon its nuclear program.

"These sanctions are great. I hope they will change Iranian behavior. They haven't yet, and I don't think they ever will," he declared. "I want more on the table."

The Congressional debate comes less than a week before Iran is scheduled to meet in Baghdad with the United States and the other members of the so-called "P5+1" countries - Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany - for a second round of talks on the future of its nuclear program.

Both sides were upbeat coming out of the first round of talks in Istanbul last month. And subsequent contacts, notably between the deputy Iranian negotiator, Ali Bagheri, and his counterpart from the European Union, Helga Schmid, have reportedly encouraged all parties that some important confidence-building measures could be agreed, at least in principle, in Baghdad.

Moreover, the defeat of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose government reportedly was the most antagonistic toward Iran of the P5+1, in this month's elections and his replacement with Francois Hollande, who immediately sent former prime minister Michel Rochard to Tehran, has bolstered hopes that progress can be made when negotiations resume May 23.

Specifically, U.S. diplomats hope that Iran will agree to some portion of a "menu" of steps it can take to build confidence, the most ambitious of which would be to freeze its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent and ship out its existing stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium in return for fuel rods that can be used for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).

Washington also hopes Tehran would agree to suspend operations or close its Fordow enrichment facility which is buried under a mountain near Qom, and ratify the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That would permit much more-intrusive monitoring by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of Iran's nuclear facilities or other facilities, such as the Parchim military base, where some Western intelligence agencies suspect nuclear-related work may be taking place.

Among the range of carrots that may be offered are formal recognition that Iran has the right to continue uranium enrichment up to five percent; a cap or delay on any further sanctions - some of which the EU is scheduled to impose next month - on its increasingly distressed economy; and the easing or eventual lifting of some sanctions.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has repeatedly threatened to unilaterally attack Iran's nuclear facilities, has long expressed strong reservations about any negotiations with Tehran that would permit it to continue any enrichment.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, one of several influential Republicans who have long urged Washington to prepare for war with Iran, angrily denounced the absence of any reference to possible U.S. military action if Iran fails to abandon its nuclear program. "I want more on the table," he said. Over the past six years, AIPAC has played a central role in pushing lawmakers to increase military aid to Israel, impose ever-tougher sanctions against Iran, and, most recently, wield the threat of U.S. military action.

In an interview with CNN Thursday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is meeting with top officials here this week, said any deal must require Tehran to "stop enriching uranium, to 20 percent, or even three to five percent, and to take all the enriched uranium out of the country." Virtually all Iran experts here, however, believe that Tehran will never agree to stop all enrichment.

Nonetheless, Israel enjoys considerable influence in Washington through powerful lobby groups, most importantly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) which appears to have pushed hard for Congress to take up the pending legislation this week in advance of the Baghdad talks.

Over the past six years, AIPAC has played a central role in pushing lawmakers to increase military aid to Israel, impose ever-tougher sanctions against Iran, and, most recently, wield the threat of U.S. military action.

The latter was precisely the original intent of the House resolution approved by a margin of 401-11 Thursday. Not only did the resolution reject any future containment policy toward a "nuclear weapons- capable Iran; but it also declared it a "vital national interest" - code for justifying military action - "to prevent the Government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability".

Such a stance is distinctly more hawkish than that of the Obama administration which has made a distinction between nuclear weapons capability - a status which many experts believe Iran has already attained - and actual possession of a nuclear weapon.

Unlike the Israeli government, the Obama administration has indicated that it will consider military action only if Iran actually develops a bomb, a much higher threshold than a "capability".

In any event, the resolution approved Thursday failed to define "capability", leaving it to its chief Democratic co-sponsor and the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Howard Berman, to fill the gap, which, to the surprise of many close observers, he did in a way that actually raised the threshold for military action higher than the administration's.

"Nuclear weapons capability? (It takes) three elements defined by the Director of National Intelligence: fissile material production, one; design weaponization and testing of a warhead, two; and a delivery vehicle," he said, speaking from prepared notes during debate on the measure Tuesday. "To be nuclear capable, you have to master all three elements."

"While Iran has a delivery system, they have not yet mastered – but they are making progress on – steps one and two. And if one day, when they master all the elements, and they kick out the inspectors, and they shut off the (IAEA's) cameras, I consider them nuclear capable," he said after repeatedly denying that the measure was meant to authorize military action.

Calls and emails regarding AIPAC's reaction to Berman's remarks were not returned, although the organization "applaud(ed)" the resolution's approval in a release.

Meanwhile, Iran hawks suffered a second setback when the managers of the NDAA bill accepted a bipartisan amendment stating explicitly that nothing in the bill "shall be construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran."

The entire bill, which, among other things, includes provisions calling for stepped-up military operations and planning in the Gulf area, will be up for a final vote Friday after a number of amendments, including one calling for the appointment of a special envoy for Iran, are considered.

At the same time, another major sanctions bill that would punish foreign companies that provide Iran with communications or riot- control technology that could be used to suppress dissent and that urged new sanctions against foreign insurance companies active in Iran, extend existing sanctions to all Iranian banks, among other measures, was at least temporarily derailed by Graham and other Republicans who wanted to include language alluding to the possible use of military force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons.

The Democratic majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid, had agreed to incorporate a provision asserting that the bill could not be construed as a basis for military action at the insistence of Republican Sen. Rand Paul who had single-handedly stalled passage of the sanctions bill in March by insisting on the inclusion of such a provision.