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House rejects ‘containment’

WASHINGTON (JTA) — An overwhelming majority in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution rejecting containment of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, but a sponsor made clear that the bill did not authorize use of force.

The nonbinding resolution, which also says it is in the U.S. "vital interest" to keep Iran from achieving a nuclear capability, passed 401-11 on Thursday. A similar resolution is under consideration in the Senate.

The language it embraces is in line with "red lines" Israel has suggested could trigger a military attack.

The Obama administration also rejects containment but has resisted making "capability," as opposed to the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, a red line for a military strike.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee praised passage of the resolution, saying in a statement that "Congress and the administration must remain united in preventing the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism from acquiring the capability to build an atomic bomb."

Dovish pro-Israel groups, including Americans for Peace Now and J Street, have sought assurances that the resolution and similar proposed legislation were not an authorization for war, and in floor debate, one of the resolution’s sponsors, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.)  said that this was the case.

"There is no authorization for the use of force," Berman, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said. "There is nothing in this resolution, and there is no intention in this resolution, to provide that authorization."

The House Armed Services Committee leadership this week approved amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, to be considered in coming days, that would also make explicit that similar language does not authorize the use of force, and that would recommend appointing a special envoy to exhaust diplomatic avenues of pressing Iran to keep it from obtaining a bomb.

Such amendments may still be subject to debate, but the inclusion of the amendments in the bill makes their passage more likely. The amendment calling for the special envoy was defeated in voting on Friday.

Americans for Peace Now praised the committee chairman Rep. Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) and its senior Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), as "wise and commendable" for attaching the amendments to the bill.

In his floor speech on the resolution urging containment, Berman also outlined the specifics of "capability," the first time a leading lawmaker has done so.  

"There are three elements, as defined by the Director of National Intelligence," he said. "Fissile material production, one. Design, weaponization, and testing of a warhead, two. A delivery vehicle. To be nuclear-capable, you really have to master all three elements. While Iran has the delivery system, they have not yet mastered — but they are making progress — on steps one and two. And if one day, when they’ve mastered all the other elements and they kick out the inspectors and they shut off the cameras, I will consider them nuclear-capable."

Another of the bill’s chief sponsors, however, suggested that it was time to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions as a means of confronting Iran.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, in her floor remarks, said that U.S.-led efforts to pressure Iran to end its suspected weapons program were unlikely to bear fruit.

"The most recent set of negotiations are just another way for them to hold off Western sanctions and buy time to further their capabilities," she said. "We need to stop the regime before it possesses the capability to develop nuclear weapons, not before it makes the decision to develop nuclear weapons—because we may not know they have made that decision until it is too late."

Israel continues to express skepticism about the utility of Iran’s talks with major Western powers, due to resume in Baghdad in May 23.

The Obama administration has ratcheted up its efforts in recent days to reassure Israel that a military option is on the table and is endeavoring to keep Israel from going ahead with a strike while talks with Iran are underway.

Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said in a speech this week that the  military option was not just "available, but ready."  

Iran denies it is developing a weapon, although reports by western analysts suggest it is advancing in such a quest.

Arriving in Prague on Friday for a state visit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Iran of "buying time" with the talks.

"I have to say I see no evidence whatsoever that Iran is serious about ending its nuclear program," he said.

In an interview with CNN, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that "our primary concern is that Iran will not be blocked when the time is still there to block them."

Barak met Thursday in Washington with U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

An effort in the Senate to pass new sanctions on Thursday targeting Iran’s energy sector ahead of the May 23 talks was stymied when the Republican leadership exercised its prerogative to block it.

Democrats had hoped to pass the sanctions partly as a means to pressure Iran during the talks, and they blasted the minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for his hold.

McConnell said he wanted language inserted that made clear at the option of a military strike, but Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, said he was blindsided. "I feel I’ve been jerked around," he said.

McConnell said he hoped to have a revised bill before the 23rd. 

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