Washington, DC – A former U.S. ambassador to the UN and Israel cautioned the Senate against lowering the threshold for war against Iran at a Senate hearing on Wednesday, even as a majority of U.S. Senators have embraced a resolution that would do exactly that. The former official, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the President’s “red line” – that Iran will not be allowed to build a nuclear weapon – is “much better” than adopting the red line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the powerful AIPAC lobby have been urging Congress to adopt, which would have the United States take military action to prevent Iran from developing a latent “capability” to develop nuclear weapons. Ambassador Pickering, who is also a NIAC advisory board member, told the committee that there is no commonly accepted definition of what constitutes a “nuclear weapons capability,” but said Iran’s “nuclear capability already exists.”
Committee Chairman John Kerry also used the hearing to call for sustained diplomacy with Iran in order to put in place “a comprehensive inspection regime” to ensure Iran’s nuclear program can only be used for civilian purposes. Kerry noted that previous diplomatic efforts have been insufficient to resolve the dispute, arguing “After more than three decades of hostility it’s certainly not realistic to expect that one high-level meeting is going to resolve all the differences or erase all of those decades…of misunderstanding and mistrust. To have any prospect of success we need an approach that gives diplomatic engagement space to breathe.”
Ambassador Pickering agreed, calling previous talks “a series of one night stands.” International negotiations with Iran are expected to resume mid-April after a 15 month hiatus.
Ambassador Pickering proposed that a diplomatic solution should be based on “the gradual removal of sanctions on Iran” in return for an Iranian agreement not to engage in nuclear weapons development, capping uranium enrichment well below weapons grade – at below 5% – and for a “full inspections system” that would deter Iran from any attempt to covertly develop a nuclear weapon.
He argued this was far superior to attacking Iran because the risks of war are “are far more significant than the advantages we might achieve.” He added that attacking Iran would have a very high likelihood of driving Iran “in the direction of openly declaring and deciding … to make a nuclear weapon, seemingly to defend itself under what might look to them and others as an unprovoked attack.”
The other experts testifying at the hearing, General James Cartwright, the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment said they agreed with Pickering’s testimony. General Cartwright added that “military options have to remain on the table” to make Iran more amenable to compromise. Still, General Cartwright warned that a military strike would “probably steel [Iran’s] resolve” to develop nuclear weapons and would fail to eliminate the knowledge base that would allow Iran to rapidly build a nuclear weapon.
Sadjadpour expressed considerable skepticism about the chances for diplomacy with Iran working. He argued Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei thinks compromise under pressure shows weakness, and that opening Iran to the rest of the world could lead to “unpredictable reforms” like that could ultimately sweep Khamenei away. Still, Sadjadpour argued “we do have to provide Iran an exit path. Pressure alone is not sufficient.”