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House adopts hard line on Iran. Would stance move US closer to war?

The House of Representatives has come up with its own red line: It says Iran must be stopped before achieving a nuclear weapons capability.

Dissatisfied with President Obama’s assurances that the United States will not tolerate Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, the House of Representatives has come up with its own red line: It says Iran must be stopped before achieving a nuclear weapons capability.

That may sound like a fine line between the two, but critics of the House resolution say it has the potential to move the US closer to war with Iran.

The problem with this new formula, some nuclear experts say, is that no one knows exactly what “nuclear weapons capable” means. What the ambiguity of this new red line for Iran does do, others add, is lower the threshold at which military action would be undertaken to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

The House resolution, with 314 sponsors, calls on Mr. Obama “to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability.” The resolution goes on to demand reaffirmation of US “opposition to any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.”

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The House approved the resolution Thursday, six days before the US and other world powers are to sit down with Iran in Baghdad for talks on the Iranian nuclear program. The vote was 401 to 11.

An initial session of talks in Istanbul last month led to suggestions from both sides that an interim diplomatic breakthrough — one that slows Iran’s nuclear progress by removing to another country much of the enriched uranium Iran has stockpiled — might at least be possible.

The House resolution could disrupt the diplomatic channel, some regional experts say, by signaling to the Iranians that the US is unlikely to stick by any compromise that would allow Iran to retain a uranium enrichment program.

But some House members, including several Democrats, said the Baghdad meeting next week made this the right time for a resolution putting Iran on notice. “What better time for this body to send an unambiguous message that Iran must never be allowed to achieve a nuclear weapons capability?” said Rep. Howard Berman (D) of California, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The message must be that Iran’s “nuclear weapons program must end once and for all,” he added.

The push to rule out a nuclear “capable” Iran reflects the concerns of some experts — and of some Israeli officials in particular — that a policy, as Obama has stated, of forbidding Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon could put off preventive military action until it’s too late. The concern is that Iran would continue to deny it intends to build a bomb even as it assembles all the components necessary to build one — and then suddenly “dashes” to the weaponization finish line.

“If we make this all about actively getting a nuclear weapon, then we will likely miss it,” says Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington who earlier served as Iran expert in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

Making the red line a “nuclear capable Iran,” on the other hand, would presumably set in motion preventive military action before a “mad dash” could result in a bomb.

The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressed the Obama administration to adopt the “nuclear capability” red line, and the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has lobbied the House and Senate to endorse the tougher policy. The Senate also has a bill pending.

Critics of the “we’ll only know they’re going nuclear when it’s too late” theory say the US and other intelligence gatherers do have the ability to detect soon enough if Iran were to decide to build a bomb. Moreover, they say “nuclear-weapons capable” is too vague a notion on which to base policy that could result in a costly and unpredictable military conflict.

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“There’s a problem with this term ‘nuclear capability’ — nobody knows what it means,” says Colin Kahl, who served for two years in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East.

“I can talk about ‘weaponization,’ ” says Professor Kahl, now specializing in security studies at Georgetown University. For example, it would be a clear tip-off if Iran were to suddenly begin enriching uranium to the 90-percent purity required for a nuclear weapon, he says.

But “we shouldn’t talk about ‘capability,’ ” Kahl adds, noting that the murkiness of the term leaves it open to too many differing interpretations.