US congressional concerns mount over escalating US-Iran tensions

Many members of Congress say the United States and Iran are engaged in a standoff with neither side willing to blink.
Sunday 23/06/2019
US Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (L) and House Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (C) walk at the Capitol in Washington following a briefing on Iran, June 20. (AP)
Mixed signals. US Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (L) and House Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (C) walk at the Capitol in Washington following a briefing on Iran, June 20. (AP)

US President Donald Trump’s decision to send an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East and the Iranian downing of a US drone increased concerns in the US Congress that the United States is heading towards war with Iran.

Although there is no support for the Iranian regime in the US Capitol, many members of Congress said they are worried that Trump is stumbling into a war, encouraged by hawkish aides, such as the national security adviser John Bolton, who advocated bombing Iran when he was a private citizen.

This comes after events since May in which Trump has threatened Iran. Politico, a Washington publication, reported that Trump’s aides have made the case that the president has the authority to take military action against Iran, citing the Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

This legislation was passed by Congress after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and was directed against al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies, even though it has been used against other groups, such as the Islamic State.

That the AUMF could be invoked against Iran would be a stretch but perhaps the Trump administration is laying the groundwork for it. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking June 13, appeared to lump together Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen with the May 31 attack on a US convoy in Afghanistan that was claimed by the Taliban.

Michael Kugelman, an expert at the Wilson Centre think-tank in Washington, told the Washington Post: “This administration is itching for a fight with Iran. Unfortunately, that sometimes entails making some accusations against Iran that are somewhat questionable.”

Bolton also issued tough statements, saying the Iranians “would be making a big mistake if they doubted the president’s resolve.”

Observers have pointed to Trump’s position that Iran was responsible for the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, seeing it as an indication that he is preparing the political ground for war.

Although Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and frequent Trump critic, has said the evidence is “overwhelming” that Iran was behind the tanker attacks, that does not overshadow the belief among congressional Democrats that Trump is unnecessarily provoking the Iranians.

Iran’s efforts to up the ante by attacking a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz on June 20 increased concerns that the United States and Iran are headed towards a military conflict.

Before the June 20 incident, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asked rhetorically in an interview broadcast June 16: “What is their [Trump administration’s] motivation to be provocative with the Iranians? Why did the president turn his back on the Iranian nuclear agreement? What’s the logic except some other issue — that is was negotiated by President [Barack] Obama?”

Pelosi took a more measured position after the drone incident, stating: “We have to be strong and strategic about how we protect our interests. We also cannot be reckless in what we do.”

Although she is usually critical of Trump, Pelosi seems to want to encourage Trump not to overreact. After suggesting that Congress and the American people have “no appetite” for going to war, she said she thinks the president does not want to go to war, either. Indeed, on June 20, Trump said publicly that he thinks Iran’s downing of the US drone was “a mistake.”

However, some members of Congress say there is still a risk of war.

In the Senate, Tom Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned prior to the June 20 incident: “We are stumbling to the brink of war without support of our allies.” He said Congress must “step up and prevent an unconstitutional war with Iran and avert one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in decades.”

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, said she was “very concerned about a slide towards war with Iran” and emphasised that Trump must go to Congress for authorisation before engaging in hostilities.

She underscored a general Democrat sentiment that “part of the problem… is that the president backed out of a deal that the United States had committed to and does it with no coherent alternative strategy.”

Schiff said he would allow a full House vote to “prevent an unconstitutional war in Iran.”

The Republican leadership in Congress is generally supportive of Trump on Iran. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, characterised the policies as “measured responses to the Iranians acting out” and emphasised that Trump is “not trying to start a war.”

However, that support for the administration’s Iran policy was not universally shared by Republicans. Senator Rand Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, referring to the Trump administration, it is “a mistake to keep ramping things up in the Middle East.”

Other Republicans in Congress are not as outspoken as Paul but they seem to harbour private misgivings. This is due in part to Trump’s end-run around Congress on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by declaring an “emergency” situation, which sparked attempts at introducing bipartisan resolutions of disapproval.

Not only do those Republicans say they are losing congressional prerogatives, they are worried that Trump could drag the country into a war that would be unpopular in their home districts a year before elections.

Indeed, Trump campaigned in 2016 on the notion that he would keep the United States away from costly wars in the Middle East. The Republicans are hoping that Trump’s instincts on the issue of avoiding war will prevail but fear miscalculations in the Gulf could precipitate military action.

Another major concern of members of Congress is the difficulty inherent in de-escalating the US-Iran crisis. With the recent drone incident and Iran not willing to renegotiate the nuclear deal and perhaps moving ahead with plans to exceed its nuclear stockpile and uranium enrichment levels under the 2015 agreement, many members fear that Trump and his team may believe they have to respond and a military response by the United States could lead to a rapid slide into more hostilities.

Many congressional members say that the United States and Iran are engaged in a standoff with neither side willing to blink. The members say they are frustrated and powerless to stop what they see as a steam engine headed towards war.

Many hope the Trump administration will take “measured steps,” in the words of McConnell, but others are worried that the staircase is so wobbly that falling off balance could be the more likely scenario.