AIPAC's Backdoor To War

Senators Press Resolution To Green-Light Israeli Attack On Iran

Ali Gharib on how an AIPAC-backed resolution in Congress might drag the U.S. into another Middle East war.

A joint resolution set to be introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham (SC) and Robert Menendez (NJ), a Republican and Democrat, respectively, declares U.S. support for an Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear program. The resolution, which expresses the sense of the Congress, will be supported by the thousands of delegates to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee annual conference that will stream through the Capitol this weekend. With prominent liberal Democrats already signing on, AIPAC's lobbying heft will likely propel a bill that, in Congressional sentiment at least, commits the U.S. to active support of a potential Israeli attack that experts think could have consequences as grave as further destabilization in the region, adverse global economic consequences, and even a hardening of Iranian resolve to get a weapon.

According to a copy obtained by Open Zion, the resolution, while affirming increasingly harsh sanctions, also "urges that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence." Tempering some fears about the bill, the authors added that the resolution shouldn't "be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war" by the U.S. Though the caveat will surely placate some members of Congress, it seems potentially at odds with a pledge of "military... support" in the event of an attack—language that, though unlikely for now, if actuated into policy could suggest the U.S. would be dragged into a war based on an Israeli decision to strike.

"Initiating a war is the gravest step any nation can take," said Columbia University professor Gary Sick, an Iran expert and former White House official. "This legislation would effectively entrust that decision to a regional state. Such a decision is an American sovereign responsibility. It cannot be outsourced."

While non-binding Congressional resolutions don't directly make policy, the language therein often manifests itself both in later, binding legislative efforts and, more frequently, in the public discourse. In this case, the resolution builds steam for a hawkish push against Iran at a time when the Islamic Republic and world powers are amid a negotiating process over the former's nuclear program, which is widely believed to be aimed at producing weapons.

In demanding the U.S. lend help to Israel should it strike, the new resolution goes even farther than a similar one languishing in the House. Introduced in late 2011 by Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert and supported by 73 of his fellow Republicans, including Michele Bachmann (MN), that resolution eschewed talk of direct U.S. aid and only affirmed "support for Israel’s right to use all means necessary" against Iran. No Democrats signed on as co-sponsors, and a House Democratic aide e-mailed last night that they'd rejected this as "the Iraq —I mean, Iran War Resolution."

Like a previous Graham effort, the new resolution misstates U.S. policy as "to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon capability" (my emphasis)—phrasing the Senate overwhelmingly approved in another AIPAC-backed measure last September. The "capability" language sets a lower threshold for war than Barack Obama's stated policy to "prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," fullstop—a distinction at the heart of Obama's flap last autumn with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Graham floated the idea of introducing this latest resolution, with fellow Republican Sen. Mike Johanns (NE), during the Republican National Convention last August, explaining that "in the event Israel had to take preventive action, we would have their back." But in the heat of a campaign where support for Israel and hawkishness on Iran had become political footballs, the proposed resolution failed to get backing either from any Democrats or influential groups like AIPAC. The JTA's Ron Kampeas reported this week that AIPAC plans to make the resolution one of its "asks," pressed by thousands of delegates as they fan out to Congressional offices during the group's Washington confab. (Called for comment, an AIPAC spokesperson didn't respond by press time.) Now Menendez, a hawk on Iran matters, lent his name to the effort and other prominent Democrats are lining up to support it: a spokesperson for New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told Open Zion she planned on signing on as a co-sponsor.

"This could have several negative implications," said Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst with the RAND Corporation, of the Graham-Menendez resolution. "First, it could be interpreted as endorsing an Israeli preventive strike against Iran, which runs counter to U.S. strategy. The U.S. intelligence community judges that Iran has not made the political decision to create nuclear weapons. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability is not imminent, hence an Israeli military strike against Iran at this moment is not necessary or justified." Nader added that the measure "could also send the message, not only to Iran, but also the wider international community, including major powers like China and Russia, that the United States is not serious about solving the nuclear issue peacefully." The result might be for Iran "to pursue nuclear weapons more aggressively than ever before."

Not everyone is as concerned. Pointing to the on-going talks between Iran and world powers, a former senior C.I.A. official, who requested anonymity to characterize sensitive diplomatic discussions, said: "I don't think this resolution will confuse the message—whatever that message is—coming out of the Administration. The discussions between the Obama administration and the Israelis about potential military action on Iran have nothing to do with these kinds of resolutions."

But the resolutions are part of a long game. At my last job, AIPAC complained when a colleague wrote that the group's tactics were pushing the U.S. toward a new Middle East war. Make no mistake: though non-binding, this Graham-Menendez resolution—announced as an AIPAC initiative before being introduced in Congress—is a pro-war effort. During now-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing, the nominee's years-old remarks about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill were seized upon: “Name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing by the Israeli, Jewish lobby," one Republican demanded. If only Graham had given Hagel an extra few weeks to hand him this shining example.