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Effort to change U.S. red line has Senate Dems worried about war

Sen. Lindsey Graham, shown attending Independence Day celebrations at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2011, has authored a resolution that would make an Iranian nuclear capability a "red line." (Courtesy U.S. Embassy, Kabul)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Is America’s red line on Iran moving?

A new bipartisan resolution introduced Thursday on Capitol Hill is part of a growing effort to shift the longstanding U.S. red line from Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon to having the capability to build one. Such a shift would bring U.S. policy in line with Israel’s approach.

The resolution — a nonbinding Senate statement backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – calls on the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring even the capability to build nuclear weapons.

It was introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Robert Casey (D-Pa.) and has 32 co-sponsors, roughly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. In order to garner Democratic support, the resolution’s authors had toned down its original language.

“I’m trying to build a bipartisan consensus around something we all believe in,” Graham said when asked by a reporter why he had removed language that seemed to threaten Iran with military force.

But the bill is already provoked jitters among Democrats anxious over the specter of war.

As it now stands, the resolution “affirms that it is a vital national interest of the United States to prevent the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.”

The language that was removed would have affirmed “that it is within the power and capabilities of the United States Government to prevent the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.”

Noting the “power and capabilities” of the United States seemed too close to saber rattling for some Democrats, insiders said. A number of senators asked Graham to include an explicit denial that the resolution authorized military action; he flatly refused.

Capitol Hill insiders say that if Graham had not changed the language at all he likely would have failed to garner more than nominal Democratic support.

“They couldn’t find any Democratic co-sponsors until they addressed those concerns,” said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, a think tank allied with foreign policy realists and liberals, and one of a number of groups that made representations to Democratic senators in recent weeks to tone down the resolution.

The threat of military action is key to the resolution’s potency, Lieberman said, but he emphasized that the resolution did not seek to authorize such action.

“We 32 original sponsors of this U.S. Senate resolution want to say clearly and resolutely to Iran: You have only two choices — peacefully negotiate to end your nuclear weapons program or expect a military strike to end that program,” Lieberman said at a news conference Thursday.

Were it not for the back and forth over the language, the resolution would have been introduced a week ago. The delay and the sensitive negotiations over language may presage tensions with Democrats as AIPAC leads the drive among pro-Israel groups to ratchet up pressure on Iran this year.

Jewish Democratic insiders note that the Democratic party remains spooked over the political fallout of its acquiescence a decade ago in the buildup to the Iraq War.

“There are clearly plenty of people, especially in the Democratic Party, who are reluctant to drive to war with great rapidity,” a Jewish Democratic activist said.

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.

As it is, the resolution has failed so far to attract the support of some key Democrats on the committees critical to its passage, Foreign Affairs and Armed Services. Among those missing are pro-Israel stalwarts like Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Fifteen of the resolution’s 32 backers are in the Democratic caucus, a figure that includes Lieberman, who caucuses with the party.

An official with a pro-Israel group said that more senators are expected to sign on in coming weeks.

The resolution’s sponsors seemed eager to suggest that the resolution reinforces Obama administration policy. Graham began the news conference by sounding a note that others among the eight senators present would repeat: “President Obama has stated that it’s unacceptable for Iran to obtain a nuclear capability.”

In fact, Obama has never used the “nuclear capability” phrasing, speaking instead of Iran “getting,” “obtaining” or “acquiring” a nuclear weapon as a red line.

“America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,” Obama said last month in his State of the Union address.

There have been instances where nations like Brazil and South Africa have earned plaudits for renouncing weapons even though they likely retained capability to develop them quickly.

Senators sponsoring the bill said capability is the more sensible red line when it comes to a belligerent regime like Iran’s. Casey said that an Iran with a nuclear capability would drive nuclear proliferation and could hand off know-how to terrorist proxies.

“The fact that they could give it to a terrorist and that it would lead to proliferation in that region is reason alone to support this resolution,” he said Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government reportedly has pressed the Obama administration to adopt Israel’s “capability” standard. According to media reports, Netanyahu refuses to give the United States advance warning of an Israeli strike unless the Obama administration agrees to make capability its red line — to strike before Iran enters an “immunity zone,” in the words of Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Graham suggested the utility of adopting Israel’s red line would be to keep Israel from going it alone. He noted that he soon would be visiting Israel and meeting with Netanyahu.

“I will convey to the Israeli prime minister: We expect you never to lose control of your own destiny, but you need to understand there has been a sea change in Washington. Please understand that we share your view that Iran should not have a nuclear weapons capability,” Graham said.

In recent weeks, there have been signs that the Obama administration has moved toward Israel’s posture; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta now speaks of the “development” of a nuclear weapon as a red line.

Still, there are signs of gaps remaining between the Obama administration and Congress members. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier Thursday, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, made clear that the administration continues to perceive a substantive strategic difference between capabilities and acquisition.

“We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so,” he said in written testimony. “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

Graham, in an exchange, pressed him on the point.

“You have doubt about the Iranians’ intention when it comes to making a nuclear weapon?” Graham asked.

“I do,” Clapper answered.

“So you’re not so sure they’re trying to make a bomb?” Graham asked.

“I think they’re keeping themselves in a position to make that decision, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time,” Clapper said.

“I guess my point is that I take a different view,” Graham concluded. “I’m very convinced they’re going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon.”