WASHINGTON - The Senate Republican leader said Monday the United States should use overwhelming military force against Iran if American intelligence shows that Tehran has decided to build a nuclear weapon or it has started to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, a bold call certain to reverberate in U.S.-Israeli talks about how to deal with an emboldened Iran.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said President Barack Obama's repeated pronouncement that the administration keeps "all options on the table" is a talking point, not a policy, and the United States needs a straightforward, deliberate plan that would force Tehran to negotiate to preserve its survival. McConnell was making the case for his proposal in a speech to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday night, shortly before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to address the gathering.
"If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program," McConnell said, according to an advanced text of the speech.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and National Intelligence Director James Clapper told Congress last month that Tehran has not made a decision on whether to proceed with development of an atomic bomb amid growing fears of its disputed nuclear weapons program and the possibility of an Israeli attack that could lead to a Mideast conflagration.
Prior to private talks with Netanyahu on Monday, Obama said the United States and Israel agree that diplomacy is the best way to resolve the crisis. But Netanyahu also said Israel must remain "the master of its fate."
McConnell said that if U.S. intelligence, at any time, informs Congress that Iran has begun to enrich uranium to weapons-grade standards or decided to develop a nuclear weapon, he would consult with the president and the joint congressional leadership on legislation authorizing the use of American military force.
Congress has not voted on such a resolution since October 2002 when it gave President George W. Bush the authority to use military force against Iraq. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have been unified in pushing hard for sanctions against Tehran, including the latest round of penalties targeting Iran's Central Bank, but a vote on using military force would test a war-weary Congress and any bipartisanship.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that while Obama has been correct it holding out the option of military force, sanctions should be given enough time to work.
"We should allow enough time to see if the sanctions and international isolation cause Iran to rethink its course of action. Taking unilateral military action at this point is unnecessary and would only serve to undermine international consensus," Smith said.
McConnell said the authorization for U.S. military against Iran would make clear that if Iran or its proxies retaliate against the United States or its interests, they would face an overwhelming response.
The Kentucky lawmaker called Iran a "self-described revolutionary state that is determined to shift the balance of power in the Middle East." He cited its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, its backing for the Syrian regime, the attempt last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.
"In the weeks and months ahead, Israel and the United States face a day of reckoning," McConnell said. "We either do what it takes to preserve the balance of power within the broader Middle East or risk a nuclear arms race across the region that's almost certain to upend it."
McConnell called Iran a "self-described revolutionary state that is determined to shift the balance of power in the Middle East." He cited its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, its backing for the Syrian regime, the attempt last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.
McConnell and other congressional leaders are scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Tuesday when he travels to Capitol Hill.
In his speech to AIPAC, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., jabbed at Obama, saying U.S. policy in the Middle East must shift from "confusion to clarity."
"Where is the leadership? Who is leading from the front with a finger pointing in the right direction rather than a finger pointing in the wind? America needs to be a compass, not a weathervane, in the Middle East," Cantor said.
Separately, Cantor and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, introduced legislation reaffirming the military and security ties between the United States and Israel. The measure also restates U.S. policy that Israel has the right to defend itself against threats and the U.S. is committed to Israel's security.