July 25, 2017

Democrats, So Focused on Russia, Risk Pushing Trump to War With Iran

In Congress today, Democrats plan to slap Donald Trump on Russia while giving him a green light to do serious damage to the Iran deal — perhaps even setting the stage for military confrontation.

It’s easy to forget that, less than five years ago, the top foreign policy concern for the United States was Iran’s imminent attainment of “nuclear-weapons capability.” Iran’s nuclear program was advancing at a rate that made it all but inevitable that the nation would soon have the ability to “break out” and begin enriching weapons-grade fuel faster than International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors could detect such a move.

Meanwhile, the reach of U.S.-led international sanctions was approaching its limits, and policymakers were reconciling themselves to the fact that — absent a change in course — the U.S. would face either a nuclear weapons-capable Iran or an immensely costly military confrontation that would dwarf the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fast forward to 2017 and the Iran nuclear deal has taken those fears off the table. With the deal, we will not need to worry about Iran having an undetectable breakout capability, given the now permanent presence of IAEA inspectors in Iran. And yet the Trump administration appears dead set on unraveling the nuclear deal and potentially setting the stage for war with Iran.

Foreign Policy reports that Donald Trump has set up a separate unit within his administration aimed at building the case for tearing up the nuclear deal — and perhaps even worse. The effort smacks of the Bush administration’s machinations to lay the groundwork for the Iraq war, when they established The Office of Special Plans led by Douglas Feith aimed at cherry picking intelligence for the case against Saddam.

Trump’s deja vu-inspiring move comes on the heels of reports that Trump fought against certifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement. If the president doesn’t certify that Iran is complying with the agreement every 90 days, under a law passed by Congress, it would trigger an expedited Congressional process to reimpose sanctions that were suspended under the nuclear deal and thereby kill the agreement.

In spite of this, Democrats in Congress — many of whom risked significant political capital by joining the nearly unanimous support for the Iran deal — seem to have taken their eye off the ball. When the Iran deal came before Congress in 2014, it took nearly every Democratic vote in the Senate to save Republicans from themselves and prevent them from blocking the agreement. Had the deal been rejected by Congress, it would have left years of negotiations and the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievement in tatters — not to mention the United States’ diplomatic credibility.

Now, that credibility is more in doubt than ever. The Trump administration reneged on U.S. commitments to the Paris Climate Treaty. It backed the U.S. out of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. It has reversed course on Obama’s easing of the embargo against Cuba. And now, the U.S. under Trump is at risk of violating the most important arms agreement in decades.

So what are Democrats who fought like hell to get this agreement doing? Last month, Democrats joined Republicans in voting 98-2 for new Iran sanctions. The only 2 who voted against it were the Senate’s iconoclasts, Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul.

The sanctions bill was not without controversy. A group of former Obama administration officials warned that it would likely cause the U.S. to violate the Iran deal. The Senate made only the most modest changes in response to some of these concerns, yet the text still relies on restraint from the Trump administration in order to not upend the Iran nuclear agreement.

The bill also gives Donald Trump new tools to engage in unprecedented and highly dangerous escalatory measures. It seeks to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization — the first time that a state’s military would be designated under a mechanism devised to confront non-state actors. The possibility of the U.S. designating a military with whom American troops often find themselves working in parallel and in close quarters in Iraq and elsewhere should raise major red flags — especially at the Pentagon. In fact, this designation is one that has been called for by American Israel Public Affairs Committeesince 2007 but even Bush decided against it due to protests from the joint chiefs of staff.

Why would Democrats in Congress put their faith in Donald Trump to uphold the Iran deal while their own legislation goads him to take more provocative actions? In part because of the usual political pressure, in part because of the sense that they must do something on Iran, but mostly because a bargain was struck to include sanctions against Russia as part of the package.

These sanctions have played as a political wedge between congressional Republicans and the president and would actually revoke some of the Trump’s authorities to lift Russia sanctions. Democrats are trumpeting the Russia sanctions as a major victory. The Iran sanctions, and all their inherent dangers, have become an afterthought.

Now, after weeks of negotiations, the sanctions package will move forward this week. By Friday, the new sanctions could be on the president’s desk. While Democrats may score a victory on Russia, they may be setting the stage for turning Trump into a wartime president. And if that happens, few will remember the Democrats as the party that sanctioned Russia. Instead they will remember when Democrats acquiesced to, and even encouraged, Trump’s push towards war with Iran.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill.

Back to top