Congress wary about conflict with Iran

Lawmakers from both parties are wary of a U.S. military conflict with Iran as tensions continue to escalate between the two countries.

The U.S. just left Iraq and is still fighting in Afghanistan, making many in Congress worried about getting involved in another conflict in the Middle East. But, at the same time, most lawmakers say military action must be on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

That dilemma — and what to do about it — is poised to play out in the halls of the U.S. Capitol as well as the White House in the coming months, starting with President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.

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In a series of interviews with The Hill, lawmakers expressed a divide that didn’t always fall on partisan lines about how to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and whether to get the U.S. military involved to do so.

“The tension is pretty high right now,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), an Armed Services committee member and retired Marine who carried the nuclear football for Presidents Carter and Reagan.

“We cannot let them close the Strait [of Hormuz], and should they try, then we really do run the risk of exchanging fire,” Kline said. “I don’t think they’re going to do it, but I also don’t think of them as a truly rational actor.”

A congressional measure helped spark some of the recent tensions in Iran, after sanctions against that nation’s central bank from the 2012 Defense authorization bill led Iran last month to threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil shipping lane.

That prompted a series of back-and-forth responses between the U.S. and Iran while other events added to the pressure cooker, including a death sentence for a former U.S. Marine accused by Iran of spying as well as the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist.

Iran’s economy has also taken a tumble in the face of sanctions from both the U.S. and Europe, as its currency dropped 25 percent against the dollar.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) was one of two authors of the Iran central bank sanctions, which passed 100-0 in the Senate. Kirk told The Hill that tough sanctions will keep the U.S. — and Israel — out of a war with Iran by showing that the international community is united against Iran.

Kirk sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner Thursday urging the administration to fully implement the sanctions Congress had passed.

“If we don’t impose sanctions, war becomes very likely between Israel and Iran,” Kirk said. “The best way to avoid that conflict is to have the toughest sanctions possible.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said that the U.S. and international community would have to use military action if Iran actually tried to close the Strait of Hormuz. She said military options should be a last resort, because “war is not good for any of us.”

“I do believe that we are at a big apex, or tipping point where something will happen,” Sanchez told The Hill. “I’m concerned that we recently came out of a war in Iraq and we’re still in one in Afghanistan, and looking forward toward any type of military confrontation — it almost seems like they’re pushing us that way.”

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) said that as Iran gets closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon, “we’re going to see the tensions mount.”

“Any actions that we take against Iran, whether we take them or one of our allies takes them, are very dangerous and very concerning,” Forbes said. “The only thing more dangerous is not taking those actions and letting Iran get a nuclear weapon.”

Some Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail have been critical of Obama’s handling of Iran, accusing him of appeasement. When an Iranian lawmaker claimed Wednesday that Obama had called for direct talks with Iran — which the administration disputed — several Republicans said Obama was “weak” and falling into Iran’s trap of bad-faith negotiations.

“Right now he’s not conveying any kind of strength whatsoever,” Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said of Obama. “If I were sitting at the White House I would say two words to Iran — that’s ‘game on.’ ”

But Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, said that the U.S. military conflicts in the Middle East haven’t worked in the past, and they wouldn’t work now with Iran either.

“We need to take a step back and look at a smarter approach to our differences with Iran,” Woolsey said. “We should do everything we can to bring Iran to the negotiating table.”

In order to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Woolsey said, the U.S. should reduce its nuclear stockpile to show Iran and others that “we believe what we’re saying toward a nuclear free world.”

Woolsey’s position is somewhat similar to Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), a libertarian who has warned against U.S. overreaction toward Iran.

The Obama administration says it’s open to resuming talks between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, but has said Iran is not willing to come to the table. While senior administration officials have pushed diplomacy, they’ve also said that a military option is on the table should Iran try to obtain nuclear weapons or close the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. and the West say Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, while Iran says its nuclear program is for energy purposes.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said that if Iran tried to close the strait, a large international coalition would rise up to stop it because of the threat to the international economy.

“I think the nuclear question is a lot more complicated,” Thornberry said. “Somebody would have to tell me what military action would be effective at preventing them from continuing their nuclear program, and that’s a hard place to start before you get to who does what.”