For all it has done to promote confrontation between the United States and Iran, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has worked to avoid the public perception that AIPAC is openly promoting war. In AIPAC's public documents, the emphasis has always been on tougher sanctions. (If you make sanctions "tough" enough – an effective embargo – that is an act of war, but it is still at one remove from saying that the US should start bombing.)
But a new Senate effort to move the goalposts of US policy to declare it "unacceptable" for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability – not a nuclear weapon, but the technical capacity to create one – gives AIPAC the opportunity to make a choice which all can observe. If the Lieberman resolution becomes an ask for AIPAC lobbyists at the March AIPAC policy conference, then the world will know: AIPAC is lobbying Congress for war with Iran.
Sponsors of the Lieberman resolution deny that it is an "authorisation for military force", and in a legal, technical sense, they are absolutely correct: it is not a legalauthorisation for military force. But it is an attempt to enact apolitical authorisation for military force. It is an attempt to pressure the administration politically to move forward the tripwire for war, to a place indistinguishable from the status quo that exists today. If successful, this political move would make it impossible for the administration to pursue meaningful diplomatic engagement with Iran, shutting down the most plausible alternative to war.
The first "resolved" paragraph of the Lieberman resolution affirms that it is a "vital national interest" of the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring a "nuclear weapons capability".
The phrase "vital national interest" is a "term of art". It means something that the US should be willing to go to war for. Recall the debate over whether the US military intervention in Libya was a "vital national interest" of the United States (which Defence Secretary Robert Gates said it wasn't.) It was a debate over whether the bar was met to justify the United States going to war.
The resolution seeks to establish it as US policy that a nuclear weapons capability – not acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but the technical capacity to create one – is a "red line" for the United States. If the US were to announce to Iran that achieving "nuclear weapons capability" is a red line for the US, the US would be saying that it is ready to attack Iran with military force in order to try to prevent Iran from crossing this "line" to achieve "nuclear weapons capability".
And this is reportedly being openly discussed by the bill's sponsors.
Senators from both parties said Thursday that a diplomatic solution was still the goal and they believed the sanctions on Iran were working, but that a containment strategy was less preferable than a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if all else fails.
So, what the Senators are reportedly saying is that if "all else fails" – that is, if diplomacy and sanctions appear to be "failing" to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability – according to these Senators, that's what "failure" would be – then they want war. That's not a legal "authorisation of force", but it is a political one.
And it is not a political authorisation of force in some far-off future. It is a political authorisation of force today.
"Nuclear weapons capability" is a fuzzy term with no legal definition. But Joe Lieberman, a principal author of the bill, has said what he thinks this term means:
"To me, nuclear weapons capability means that they are capable of breaking out and producing a nuclear weapon – in other words, that they have all the components necessary to do that," Lieberman said. "It's a standard that is higher than saying 'The red line is when they actually have nuclear weapons'."
But many experts think that Iran already has the "components" necessary for "breaking out".
On Thursday, Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies was quoted saying that the November report from the International Atomic Energy Agency "basically laid out the fact that Iran now has every element of technology needed to make a fission weapon".
On January 24, Helene Cooper reported in the New York Times:
Several American and European officials say privately that the most attainable outcome for the West could be for Iran to maintain the knowledge and technology necessary to build a nuclear weapon while stopping short of doing so.
This suggests two things. One, these US and European officials believe that Iran already has "the knowledge and technology necessary to build a nuclear weapon"; two, these US and European officials believe that inducing Iran not to use this knowledge and technology to build a nuclear weapon is the best outcome that the West can achieve.
If the experts and Western officials who believe that Iran already has "the knowledge and technology necessary to build a nuclear weapon" are right, then what that says is that Iran has already crossed the "red line" of the Lieberman bill. And therefore, the supporters of the Lieberman bill are saying that they are ready for war today. Or they are ready for war any time that they decide to join the experts and officials who say that Iran has already crossed the Lieberman "red line", which of course is something that the Lieberman supporters can do anytime they want.
It's as if someone wearing a bag over their head says, "I'm ready for war whenever I see light". All they have to do to see light is take the bag off their head, so they are saying that they are ready for war whenever it is convenient for them to say that they are.
Anyone who supports the Lieberman bill is declaring themselves for war. If AIPAC makes the Lieberman bill an ask for its March policy conference, then at least we'll be done with the pretence that AIPAC is doing anything besides trying to get the US into another Middle East war.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.