The U.S. could be headed into a war with Iran without any debate in Congress, according to lawmakers who have spoken out about their concerns in recent weeks.
“If you are going to put 1,000 troops inside Syria… the ultimate result of that will be to put US forces in direct confrontation with either Iranian forces or Iranian proxy forces,” said Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) at the Center for New American Security’s annual conference last week. “There is currently military activity happening inside Syria that is not authorized,” Murphy cautioned, saying that a Congressional debate on whether to provide such authorization is long overdue as the escalating conflict could lead to a long term confrontation between U.S. forces and Iran.
After a U.S. Air Force fighter shot down an Iranian-made drone in Syria, lawmakers did discuss the legality of American intervention in Syria at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in June. John Bellinger, former counsel for the Bush Administration, testified about his concerns that a 2001 authorization for military force passed by Congress after the September 11th attacks was not sufficient justification for U.S. actions in Syria. “On Syria, I have to say, just on the law, I was puzzled about the statements coming out of the Pentagon that the shoot-down was authorized by the 2001 AUMF,” Bellinger said.
The attack was a part of the United States’ greater strategy of deploying a small group of forces to al-Tanf to train up Sunni forces, which would then take on ISIS before turning their attention to Assad. However, Assad-aligned and Iranian-backed forces do not appear eager to cede a significant portion of the country to U.S.-backed rebels. In the midst of the U.S. downing of a Syrian jet and reports of Iranian drones and Iranian-backed forces operating nearby, many hawks inside the beltway have urged the administration to more aggressively rollback Iranian forces embedded in Syria.
As the U.S. military presence in Syria has ramped up in preparation for an assault on ISIS strongholds in the country, the U.S. has increasingly struck Assad-aligned and Iranian-backed forces operating in the country. These military confrontations have increased the risk of the U.S. being dragged into conflict with the Syrian regime, Iran and Russia – a prospect that would almost certainly further destabilize the region. The White House has also warned against future chemical attacks on the Syrian people by the Assad regime. Last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made an official statement on Twitter, warning that, “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people.” The warning increases the risk that the U.S. would consider a military response against Russian and Iranian forces, even without a Congressional authorization.
Despite the recent engagements with Syrian and Iranian-backed forces, even members of the Trump Administration have disagreed as to whether such actions are on sound legal footing. During the Review of the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request on June 13th, Senator Murphy asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “would you agree that there is no legal authorization granted to the Administration by Congress to wage war against the Assad regime or against the Iranian proxies?” Tillerson confirmed that he would agree with that statement, which would appear to rule out military action against Assad-aligned forces in Syria.
Yet, later at a National Press Club luncheon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford appeared to contradict Tillerson’s assessment. When Jeff Ballou, President of the National Press Club, asked Dunford to explain the legal justification for targeting Syrian government forces, he replied “[w]e are there and have legal justification under the Authorization for Use of Military Force. We’re prosecuting a campaign against ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria.”
Dunford did not directly answer the question, but implied that an existing authorization of force against terrorist organizations involved in 9/11 gives him the legal authority to target the Syrian regime. There was much debate and disapproval when Obama used the 2001 authorization to justify air attacks against ISIS in Libya.
The S.J. Res. 23 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF 2001) was created by the Bush Administration following the 9/11 attacks. The resolution gave the United States Armed Forces the power to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Subsequently, Congress passed the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq (AUMF 2002), which authorized the President to “use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” While this resolution specifically focuses on Iraq, the phrase “by Iraq” arguably broadens the scope to threats that arise as a byproduct of actions in Iraq.
The Obama administration was open to amending these authorizations, yet used them to justify its campaign against ISIS by reasoning that ISIS was an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In 2016, The Obama White House released a report on the legal and policy frameworks guiding the use of the authorizations. In this report it states that “the 2001 AUMF and, in certain circumstances, the 2002 AUMF authorize the use of force in Syria against al-Qa’ida in Syria and ISIL.” Nowhere in this report does it mention extending this authorization to include attacks against Assad’s forces or any other forces operating in Syria.
The lack of a unified stance on the 2001 AUMF’s reach, particularly in the case of Syria, shows the murky legality of U.S. involvement in the conflict. With such high stakes, a formal debate in Congress addressing the issue of military force may be necessary to provide clarity regarding the U.S. military’s role in Syria and prevent a slide into war.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley staked out an aggressive position on Iran during Congressional testimony this week and left open the question of the administration’s stance toward regime change in Iran. Yet when pressed, she also affirmed that Iran is abiding by the nuclear accord.
During a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Monday, Chairman Hal Rogers highlighted Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles and sponsorship of terrorism, inquiring what the administration is doing at the UN Security Council to pressure Iran. After Haley pointed to Russian obstruction at the UN Security Council, Rogers asked “Is change of power in Iran an option?” Haley did not rule out the prospect of regime change, instead replying “I don’t know.”
Secretary Tillerson was directly in favor of regime change last week when he claimed that the State Department’s “policy towards Iran is to push back on [its] hegemony, contain their ability to develop, obviously, nuclear weapons and to work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” It is unclear what “elements” Tillerson was referring to, but any attempt at regime change in Iran, especially if it involves the United States, will likely not remain peaceful as the experience in Iraq underscores. With various high-level officials being quoted in favor of regime change, it is evident that this administration’s policy on Iran has taken a drastically different tone than its predecessor.
Additionally, during a Wednesday House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) vocalized his support for regime change in Iran. The Congressman, an avid supporter of the Mujahedin-e Khalq organization that was designated as a terrorist group because of attacks against Americans inside Iran, argued that the United States needs “to support the good people in Iran rather than giving 150 billion dollars to their oppressors” and see “what people we can actually be supportive of in Iran who oppose the mullah regime.” Rohrabacher’s comments are particularly troubling given that just weeks ago he suggested the terror attack on Tehran in which 17 innocent Iranians were killed be viewed as “a good thing.”
On the nuclear deal, Haley confirmed yesterday that “we’re not seeing any violations.” But despite Iran’s compliance, she articulated her discomfort with the accord. Responding to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R- FL), Haley said that she “strongly disagree[s] with what happened with the Iran agreement…they’re going to continue their nuclear capabilities and we just gave them a lot of money to do it with.” Diaz-Balart continued, asking her if the “organizations that Iran has always helped are now flush…more with cash because Iran has the money.” Haley claimed that they are, stating: “you see there’s this surge of weapons going into their [Iranian proxies’] hands and money being used for different things and you have to wonder, did we help do that?”
However, Ambassador Haley’s implication that Iranian proxies are now flush with cash due to the JCPOA contradicts U.S. Intelligence Officials’ reports on Iran’s use of funds since the nuclear deal. Vincent Stewart, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified last month that while some of the unfreezed funds had gone to the Iranian military, the “preponderance of the money has gone to [the country’s] economic development.” Further, he indicated Iran’s support for Assad in Syria has remained essentially the same. Similarly, when asked if Iran is a greater or lesser threat since the agreement, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that he is “not sure [that he] can assess that.”
Haley also indicated that the administration is going to try to push Iran out of Syria. She said that the US needs to remind Iran that they will not tolerate their backing of Assad. “The Iranian influence in Syria is a problem. It’s going to continue to be a problem because they’re backing Assad. Russia’s completely backing Iran and so we’re trying to make that separation because that needs to happen.”
This hostile rhetoric, with little indication of an effort toward diplomatic engagement of Iran, underscores a likely missed opportunity for the U.S. and Iran. Newly re-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has indicated a strong interest in improving diplomatic relations with the West and campaigned heavily on the promise of an improving economy as a result of sanctions relief. During Iran’s final presidential debate, Rouhani even claimed that he “will engage [himself] in lifting all the non-nuclear sanctions during the coming four years.” President Rouhani’s willingness to negotiate gives the United States and its allies an opening to engage Iran on remaining issues of concern – like its ballistic missile program and ties to U.S.-designated terror groups. However, the United States government’s recent rhetoric is almost certain to undercut Rouhani and dash hopes for renewed diplomacy, ultimately emboldening Iranian hardliners who condemn engagement with the US.
While the administration continues its review of Iran policy, thus holding the fate of the nuclear accord and broader relations with Iran in doubt, Haley’s remarks give a preview of an administration eager to depart from the Obama administration’s engagement in favor of more hawkish policies.
Senators held a key vote yesterday on a joint resolution that would have blocked a portion of President Trump’s recent arms sale to Saudi Arabia, specifically precision guided munitions that will be dropped in the conflict in Yemen. After strong arguments on the Senate floor, the joint resolution (S.J. Res. 42) offered by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Al Franken (D-MN) failed by a close vote of 47 to 53.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer joined the majority of the Democratic caucus, in addition to a handful of Republican Senators, in voting for the resolution. The close vote is an indication of widespread discomfort with Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and its role in the region. It also signals division on the Trump administration’s increasing alignment with Saudi Arabia in its proxy war with Iran.
Sen. Paul clearly warned about the dangers of further destabilizing the Middle East by doubling down on weapons to Saudi Arabia. “What do you think Iran thinks when Saudi Arabia gets weapons?” Paul asked his colleagues on the Senate floor. “They think to themselves well, if the Saudis are getting more we need more…Ever heard of an arms race? That’s what this is. We are fueling an arms race in the Middle East.”
“Do you know how much the Gulf Sheikdoms, Saudi Arabia, all their allies, the ones that are bombing the hell out of Yemen, do you know how their military spending compares to Iran? Eight to one,” said Paul. He also argued that the best way to influence Iran’s thinking on its ballistic missile program is to put pressure on Saudi Arabia. “How do you put pressure on Saudi Arabia?” Paul asked. “Maybe we wouldn’t sell them arms. Maybe we would withhold the sale of arms until they come to the table and we get a ballistic agreement with Iran,” Paul continued.
Adding to the grave concern over human rights violations in Yemen, Senators Paul and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) cautioned against providing more unconditional support to Saudi Arabia given its history of support for radical Wahhabist ideology that is followed by some of the world’s most dangerous terror groups. Sen. Paul referenced leaked emails from Hillary Clinton emphasizing the need to pressure Saudi Arabia and Qatar on its support for terror groups including ISIS, and asked his fellow Senators, “Who in their right mind would sell arms to Saudi Arabia under those circumstances?”
Citing an article by Stephen Kinzer in the Boston Globe, Sanders argued that “Saudi Arabia has been working for decades to pull Indonesia away from moderate Islam towards the austere, Wahhabbi form that is the state religion in Saudi Arabia.” While such arguments have been well-documented, they have not resulted in a broad rethinking of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) countered that the U.S. needs to be concerned about Iran spreading radical ideology, not Saudi Arabia. “The last thing we want is the Iranian Ayatollah to march through the Mideast and start spreading his form of radical Shi’ism in the backyard of all of our Arab allies,” argued Graham in opposition to the resolution.
While Sanders acknowledged that “there are times in which we must work with problematic governments in order to advance our security goals,” he cautioned that “for far, far too long we have been giving a pass to a government [Saudi Arabia] that supports policies that are fundamentally at odds with American values and that have led to extremely negative consequences for American security.”
While the vote ultimately fell short, the Trump administration’s unflinching alignment with Riyadh is spurring scrutiny that no other administration has faced on its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48), who represents more Iranian Americans than nearly any other lawmaker in the House of Representatives, suggested on Thursday that the recent ISIS terror attacks in Tehran were a positive development during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Hezbollah. Rohrabacher’s apparent praise for the attacks, which left 17 Iranians dead, came after President Donald Trump issued a statement condemning the attacks but also suggesting that Iran had deserved to be struck.
“We have recently seen an attack on Iran, and the Iranian government – the mullahs, I believe that Sunni forces have attacked them,” noted Rohrabacher before suggesting that the attack could be a “ratcheting up” of U.S. commitments against Iran. He then asked the panel, “Isn’t it a good thing for us to have the United States finally backing up Sunnis who will attack Hezbollah and the Shiite threat to us, isn’t that a good thing? And if so, maybe…this is a Trump strategy of actually supporting one group against another.”
Rohrabacher concluded, saying, “Maybe we should consider having radical Muslim terrorists fighting each other, I’ll leave it at that.”
Rohrabacher has a long history of bizarre and offensive statements on Iran, but his callousness toward the Iranian victims of ISIS terror might be his most callous and extreme thus far. Furthermore, he appears to suggest, without any evidence – that the Tehran attacks could have been part of a Trump master plan to target Iran. There is no indication supporting the theory of U.S. or any other nation’s involvement in the attack, yet hardliners in Iran have hinted at such motivations in the wake of heightened anti-Iran rhetoric in Saudi Arabia following Trump’s visit to Riyadh.
The congressman is a close ally of President Trump’s and was previously under consideration for a Secretary of State. He also represents a swing district that voted for Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016. According to the most recent census data, more than 8,000 Iranian-Americans reside in Rohrabacher’s district, making it one of the most populous districts for Iranian Americans in the country.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s outrageous tweetstorms following the recent terrorist attacks on London, a fissure may finally be developing between the Trump administration and certain Republican lawmakers over Trump’s Muslim ban.
Following both of Trump’s attempts to ban visas for Iranians and other targeted countries, nearly every single Democrat in Congress has sponsored legislation to repeal and defund the ban. But not one Republican has joined that effort and instead the President’s party has largely given its silent imprimatur for the ban. However, this is beginning to change.
Early this week, President Trump took to Twitter to express his frustrations, writing, “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” He continued to send a barrage of tweets, stating that “the Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban” rather than the “watered down, politically correct version they submitted [to the Supreme Court].”
This past weekend, it was evident that Trump’s Republican colleagues are starting to break with him. Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Susan Collins (R-ME) both spoke to the press this weekend, arguing that a travel ban is not the best course of action for United States security. During an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Senator Blunt noted, “It’s been four months since I said they needed four months to put that [extreme vetting] in place…I think you can do that without a travel ban and hopefully we are.” Similarly, while discussing the ban on “Face the Nation”, Senator Collins stated that while she supports a more rigorous vetting process, she does “believe that the very broad ban that [Trump] has proposed is not the right way to go.”
Collins has voiced her opposition to Trump and his policies since before the election. In January, she asserted that “there should never, never be a religious test for refugee status and people practicing a particular religion should not be subject to a higher burden of proof than those who adhere to another religion,” and referred to the policy as “likely unconstitutional.” But many in the Republican caucus expressed opposition during the presidential campaign to Trump’s calls for a Muslim ban. Everyone from Paul Ryan to Mike Pence criticized Trump’s pledge to ban Muslims as a candidate, but most have changed their tune since he was elected.
These new statements illustrate that perhaps we are approaching a breaking point and, at least for some Republicans, they have had enough. Still, while these comments against the ban are a step in the right direction, no Republican has supported legislative action to actually halt the ban. And they have not yet said anything about the administration’s effort to create a framework to systematically discriminate against Muslims – effectively a “backdoor” Muslim ban that is being put in place.
The existing vetting process for obtaining a US immigration visa is already highly extensive and can take months to complete. Trump’s new “extreme vetting” proposal now in place aims to correct this allegedly inadequate system by ensuring that all new immigrants “share our values.” This includes measures such as providing five years worth of social media history. Since the president has made it clear that he believes “there is no real assimilation” with Muslim immigrants, this extreme vetting program seems to serve as a means to drive down the number of people from a Muslim background in the United States, rather than keeping out terrorists. It is imperative that congressional Republicans and Democrats alike ensure that extreme vetting is not used as a cover for reaching the same ends as the travel ban.