Eight questions to ask before considering war with Iran

Eight questions to ask before considering war with Iran
© -/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration appears to be walking on a slippery slope toward war with Iran, as previous administrations did with Iraq and Vietnam, with tragic results and buyer’s remorse. War with Iran likely would be very expensive in American blood and treasure.  

There is a decades-long history of tension between the U.S. and Iran. In 1953, the United States overthrew the legitimate government of Iran to restore the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran with U.S. support until 1979. During the Iranian revolution that deposed the shah, Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. During the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88), the U.S. supported Iraq and shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft in international airspace, killing all 290 passengers. 

Recently, the United States and Iran have been on opposite sides of proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. Throughout this period, Iran has supported terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. Tension between the U.S. and Iran accelerated after the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a multilateral agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program, and imposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran. In response, Iran last month shot down an unmanned U.S. drone, and has resumed its uranium enrichment program. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE acknowledged that he considered striking Iran.


Congress is allowing the Trump administration to act without exerting its authority and responsibility under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which states that “Congress shall have the authority to declare war.” The administration is likely to claim that presidential authority to strike Iran is based on the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), in which Congress empowered the president to use force against those he “determines planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks. If the administration makes that claim, however, it is sure to be challenged.

In an encouraging development, the Senate recently considered an amendment to a defense bill, offered by Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallFormer Sen. Carol Moseley Braun stumps for Interior post: 'A natural fit for me' Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Overnight Energy: Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' | GM reverses on Trump, exits suit challenging California's tougher emissions standards | United Nations agency says greenhouse gas emissions accumulating despite lockdown decline MORE (D-N.M.), which stated that no funds may be used to conduct hostilities against the government of Iran, against the armed forces of Iran, or in the territory of Iran, except pursuant to an act or a joint resolution of Congress specifically authorizing such hostilities. The amendment failed to get the 60 votes required for passage, but it did get 50 votes and that means half of the Senate is on record against a war with Iran without congressional approval. 

One might wonder why, given its constitutional mandate, a member of the Senate might not support such an amendment. If the Senate were to take up the issue, it is important that the debate be fact-based and not mired in partisan rhetoric, unchallenged guarantees of success, and patriotic opinion pieces published in major newspapers. War with Iran would be a serious undertaking. A nation of 80 million people, Iran is four times the size of California and has considerable conventional military assets, as well as a host of allied militia and terrorist groups throughout the Middle East.

In the interest of structuring a fact-based debate, I would suggest that the Senate address each of the eight questions of the so-called “Powell doctrine” — former Secretary of State Colin PowellColin Luther PowellReinvesting in American leadership George W. Bush congratulates Biden, Harris Don't wait to start the transition MORE’s questions that must be answered affirmatively before the United States should take military action:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?

  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?

  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other nonviolent policy measures been fully exhausted?

  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglements?

  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?

  7. Is the action supported by the American people?

  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

One test of the support of the American people regarding a potential war with Iran might be whether they would support military conscription and a war tax, since the U.S. government already is $23 trillion in debt. Skin in the game affects the decision process.

The decision to go to war is the most serious decision made by any sovereign state and its citizens. The application of the Powell doctrine provides a serious framework to reach that decision.

Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 after more than 35 years of service. A graduate of the U.S. Army War College and Harvard’s National and International Security Program, he testified to the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.