“Thank you for contacting me to express your support for diplomacy between the United States and Iran,” the letter dated March 12, 2013 and signed by Schumer begins, adding, “I share your concern over the United States’ relationship with Iran and I am committed to supporting President Obama in advancing his diplomatic outreach.” But the letter later makes unsubstantiated claims about Iran’s nuclear program:
In the past decade, Iran has developed nuclear technologies which U.S. and other nations’ intelligence agencies believe are intended to produce nuclear weapons. In November of 2007, the Administration released a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) giving evidence that Iran had operated a clandestine nuclear-weapons program until 2003. The nation continues to enrich uranium into weapons-grade nuclear materials in violation of United Nations resolutions, and in November of 2009 disclosed that it has a partially constructed enrichment facility near Qom. Although President Ahmadinejad maintains that these facilities are designed to generate civilian nuclear energy, experts say that the type of fuel that they produce is sufficient to arm a nuclear warhead.
It’s unclear what experts Schumer or his staff are referring to, but the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said that Iran has thus far only enriched uranium up to 20 percent purity, mainly for the purpose of medical research. “Weapons-grade” nuclear material is uranium that is enriched to 90 percent. While the IAEA and U.S. and Israeli intelligence believe the Iranians have not yet made the decision to go that far, U.S. officials have said they think Iran is keeping its options open. Indeed, as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “I think they’re keeping themselves in a position to make that decision.” (Schumer’s office has not responded to inquires about the letter before publication of this story.)
“What I’ve said, and I will say today, is that the intelligence we have is they have not made the decision to proceed with the development a nuclear weapon,” then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said last month. In fact, Israeli intelligence officials have said that Iran’s nuclear program is, while progressing, “advancing slower than Iran had hoped,” in the words of Israeli military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
But why is this weapons versus civilian nuclear program distinction important? As the Washington Post’s then-ombudsman Patrick Pexton explained last year when Post reporters were criticized for conflating the two, “It can .. play into the hands of those who are seeking further confrontation with Iran.”
Schumer has co-sponored a new non-binding Senate resolution urging the U.S. to back Israel, militarily if necessary, should Israel “be compelled to take military action” against Iran “in self-defense.” The resolution’s lead sponsor, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), said that the self-defense language in the resolution includes a pre-emptive strike — meaning that Israel could ultimately decide whether the U.S. gets involved in another Middle East war — and that the measure is meant to pave the way for an authorization of war with Iran.
The New York Times last week criticized the resolution, saying “it would increase political pressure on Mr. Obama by putting Congress on record as backing a military operation initiated by Israel at a time of Israel’s choosing” and that it “could also hamper negotiations by playing into Iranian fears that America’s true intention is to promote regime change.” (HT: Jamal Abdi)