Senator Lindsey Graham (image by Wni McNamee/Getty)
By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Congress would authorize President Barack Obama to use military force to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program, under legislation Sen. Lindsey Graham plans to offer later this year.
"My goal is to avoid war, and the best way to avoid war is to let the Iranians know they're going to face one and lose," Graham said.
The Seneca Republican, in an interview Tuesday at the Capitol, said he wants Congress to reinforce Obama's position of not ruling out the use of military power to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
"What I want to do this fall is try to get my colleagues to speak up at a time when it will matter to get on record and let the Iranians know that when the president says all options are on the table, including military force, it's not just an idle threat - we actually agree with him," Graham said. "To have a strong vote by the Congress to authorize the use of force, if necessary, to stop the Iranian program may be the last card to play before we have to actually use force."
Vice President Joe Biden said in March that Obama is "not bluffing" when it comes to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capability.
"We are not looking for war," Biden said in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "We are looking to and ready to negotiate peacefully, but all options, including military force, are on the table."
Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he agrees with the White House that preventing Iranians from developing nuclear weapons makes more sense than trying to contain them once the weapons are a reality.
Introducing a war resolution in September or October, Graham said, would give more time for economic sanctions to work and would give the new Iranian president, Hasan Rawhani, a chance to act first.
But Graham said he's growing more skeptical Iran will stand down without a stronger threat of military action from the U.S.
"If the Iranians thought for a moment that the U.S. would seriously consider taking out their nuclear program, it would reinforce the sanctions," Graham told European Union legislators visiting Washington. "Without a belief the American military would act, I think the Iranians are going to move forward."
Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Graham's legislation, assuming it receives broad bipartisan support, would also send a key message to U.S. friends in the region.
"Many allies also wonder after Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria whether the U.S. is really willing to act," Cordesman said.
In May, the Senate voted 99-0 for a resolution by Graham saying the U.S. supports Israel's right to defend itself against Iran's nuclear program, and that the U.S. would provide Israel with diplomatic, military and economic support if it came to that.
Cordesman said the vote suggests authorizing use of force - without mandating it - also could get broad support in Congress.
"It would get rid of reservations that do exist in Iran that basically you have a divided Congress and the president doesn't have the public support he needs to act," Cordesman said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday on CBS News' Face the Nation that the U.S. needs to be more forceful.
"You should ratchet up the sanctions and make it clear to Iran that they won't get away with it," Netanyahu said. "And if sanctions don't work, then they have to know that you'll be prepared to take military action. That's the only thing that will get their attention."
Graham, who traveled to the region earlier this month, has grown more alarmed about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Asking Congress to pre-authorize military action - before the president seeks it - would be his strongest action to date.
Not only would a nuclear Iran threaten Israel and the entire region, Graham said, but the technology might be transferred to terrorist groups intent on attacking the U.S.
"The time for talking is quickly closing," Graham said.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on legislation that has not been introduced.