Congress must exercise its power to ensure America has no war with Iran
Tensions with Iran remain on a hair trigger and the risks of miscalculation by all sides are dangerously high. Americans do not wantto go to war with Iran. A war with Iran would have catastrophic strategic, economic, and security consequences for American interests and every effort must be made to avoid it. Lawmakers in Congress now have a real opportunity to pull our nation back from the brink and set guardrails on a disastrous and highly ineffective Trump administration foreign policy on Iran.
During consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act this year, bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress voted to limit the ability of the president to launch a war of choice with Iran without explicit legislative authorization. The House also clarified that the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force for Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be used to justify an attack against Iran. That view was even endorsed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper during his confirmation hearing. As House and Senate conferees negotiate the final bill language this month, they should heed the bipartisan consensus that would preserve the war making authority of Congress and should retain, in full, the bipartisan amendment by Ro Khanna and Matt Gaetz that overwhelmingly passed the House.
When considering why legislative action to prevent an unnecessary war with Iran is needed, it is important to understand how we got to this dangerous point. President Trump set the United States on this path of escalation last year when he withdrew American participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran deal, which blocked the ability of Iran to build nuclear weapons and imposed unprecedented inspections in exchange for sanctions relief. It was an agreement that even our own intelligence community and military leaders said was working.
In the first year after the United States exited the deal, Iran remained and adhered to its commitments despite aggressive American steps to ensure that Iran would not see any of the benefits, tantamount to economic war. The Trump administration, whose policy is driven by those who support regime change, has further designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization despite the security risks of doing so, sanctioned the Iranian foreign minister for acting on behalf of his own leader and imposed unrealistic conditions for diplomacy. In other words, there is no coherent strategy from the Trump administration.
It is also in this context that we must evaluate the most recent behavior of Iran, which has taken a number of calculated steps to put pressure on the remaining parties of the deal to deliver the benefits that were promised. By breaching the caps on its uranium enrichment stockpiles and level of uranium enrichment, Iran has signaled it will not keep abiding by the limits of the deal unless it receives the sanctions relief it was promised. These steps are reversible and do not pose an imminent nuclear proliferation risk. Indeed, the swiftness with which the breaches were detected and confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency are solid proof that the verification mechanisms of the original Iran deal are working.
While these breaches do not pose an immediate break out risk, coupled with Iranian attacks on international shipping, they significantly raise the risks of escalation. Iran is playing a dangerous game by trying to exploit the incoherence of Trump. This will not end well for anyone if this spins out of control. All sides can misinterpret motives and make missteps.
At critical moments like these, strategic signaling matters. Congress can send a strong message of restraint, deescalation, and support for a diplomatic resolution, which is also the view of the vast majority of the American public who they represent. The absence of a coherent Iran strategy with realistic objectives from the Trump administration makes leadership by Congress even more essential. The American people need some adults in the room to prevent an outright international disaster.
As the National Defense Authorization Act conferees in the House and Senate begin to hash out which of the many important provisions will be included in the final text, it is imperative that they retain language that will prevent an unauthorized war of choice with Iran. This amendment would reinforce the constitutional authority granted to Congress over matters of war. Importantly, the amendment does not at all restrict the ability of the president to act in defense or to come to the aid of an ally. Nothing in the bipartisan amendment restricts his inherent powers as commander in chief. It is simply common sense and the will of the American people.
Kelly Magsamen is vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and serves on the advisory board for Foreign Policy for America. She served in the State Department, on the National Security Council staff, and at the Pentagon.
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