Can Congress Steer The U.S. Away From War With Iran?

A lack of congressional oversight is leaving the Trump administration on a collision course with Tehran.

The Trump administration’s sudden march toward an armed conflict with Iran has a number of top Democrats and even some Republicans attempting to rein in the president’s hawkish senior officials before potentially tens of thousands of U.S. troops are once again engaged in a bloody conflict in the Middle East.

Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have renewed a push for a 2018 bill that would prohibit the U.S. from using funds for a war against Iran without first getting congressional approval. On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) joined the bill as a co-sponsor.

“We cannot let the Trump Admin drag us into yet another war in the Middle East,” Warren tweeted.

The United States abruptly ordered all its non-emergency staff to leave Iraq on Wednesday, and in the last week, American warships and bombers deployed to the Persian Gulf, the U.S. blamed Iran for the alleged sabotage of oil tankers, and The New York Times reported that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented plans to potentially send 120,000 American troops to the region. Meanwhile, the White House has continued its pattern of stonewalling lawmakers when it comes to calls for accountability.

These developments have shaken European diplomats and top military officials and roiled Congress, but analysts say the Udall bill is not enough to fix the underlying problems: Congress has been cut out of the decision-making on Iran and has, since 2001, ceded too much power to the president when it comes to using military force. The U.S. now finds itself in a precarious position where missteps from either the Trump administration or Tehran could trigger a confrontation that Congress would have little power to stop from spiraling into full-on armed conflict.

Congress Calls For Hearings

One of the primary issues for Congress and the public in assessing the situation in Iran is that the White House has essentially kept its alleged intelligence about Iranian threats to itself, while allies such as Britain have publicly disputed White House claims that the danger from Iran has increased.

National security adviser John Bolton has a history of misrepresenting intelligence, so Congress could hold hearings and demand briefings to assess the reality behind the alleged new Iranian threats and get clarity on military plans such as the reported 120,000 troop deployment, said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit government watchdog organization.

“This is the kind of thing that is serious enough that you want to have Acting Secretary Shanahan and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo coming forward,” Smithberger said. Ideally such a hearing would also involve Bolton, who has been at the forefront of the aggressive posturing against Iran and explicitly called for bombing Iran in previous years.

On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), called for bipartisan support to demand the State Department hold public and private briefings on Iran. But that may be hard to find, with some senators, such as Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), blithely claiming the U.S. would easily win a conflict with Iran with “two strikes: the first strike and the last strike,” and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) saying war with Iran is up to Tehran.

Other lawmakers, including Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), on Wednesday tried to downplay the threat of war with Iran.

“It’s close to inconceivable that the president, the administration would consider a war with Iran,” said Romney, a GOP critic of the president. Romney claimed the concern about the escalating tensions were “ill-founded and illogical.”

But even some libertarian-leaning Republicans emphasized that Congress ought to have oversight over any such military action.

“I think if we’re going to go to war somewhere, Congress ought to approve it,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a critic of unauthorized wars abroad.

A photo released by the U.S. Navy shows part of the strike group being deployed to the Persian Gulf.
A photo released by the U.S. Navy shows part of the strike group being deployed to the Persian Gulf.
Associated Press


If Congress does hold public hearings on Iran, one key question will be whether the White House believes that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force would cover a military intervention against Iran.

The AUMF, passed three days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, has been used by multiple administrations to justify a broad range of military actions without congressional oversight, including detentions, bombings and troop deployments in over 20 countries. When President Donald Trump launched airstrikes last year against Syrian forces following President Bashar Assad’s chemical attack on the town of Douma, top Republicans insisted the move was constitutionally valid under the AUMF.

If the U.S. were to strike an Iranian target, it’s possible the White House would use a similar argument to circumvent congressional oversight, an issue critics brought up earlier this year when Trump classified Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a foreign terrorist group. The bill from Udall and other senators does not explicitly say the AUMF shouldn’t be invoked for any conflict with Iran ― which leaves a loophole open for the Trump administration.

“I would personally be extremely concerned about this administration’s unwillingness or inability to say that the AUMF doesn’t apply to Iran,” said Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Obama administration official.

The current escalation is something more lawmakers should have seen coming. Relations between Iran and the U.S. have steadily deteriorated since Trump took office, after he spent much of his presidential campaign vowing to tear up the Iran nuclear deal and adopt a more hawkish stance on Iran. Trump formally withdrew the U.S. from the Iran deal in May 2018 and implemented heavy sanctions on the Iranian oil industry, which critics say emboldened Iranian hard-liners and put the two countries back on a collision course.

There are steps Congress can take to increase its oversight of U.S. actions against Iran. But Smithbergen said nearly two decades of lawmakers failing to forcefully push back against the broad uses of the AUMF have resulted in Trump now holding much of the power when it comes to any potential military strike. And while Trump has personally shown little appetite to become entrenched in foreign military intervention, analysts say, he has surrounded himself with officials who have long called for more hard-line and interventionist policies in a number of countries around the world.

“John Bolton and Mike Pompeo have been on the record their entire careers wanting war with Iran,” Blanc said.

Igor Bobic contributed reporting to this article.

This article has been updated with comments from lawmakers.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote from Sen. Mike Lee to Rep. Barbara Lee. It also described Stephanie Murphy and Barbara Lee as senators.

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