Opinion | National Security

Congress, stop ducking war-declaration authority on Iran

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The Trump administration has doubled down on sanctions against Iran. The latest round targets senior officials of Hezbollah, which most think is a proxy terror group bankrolled by Iran, and President Trump has threatened that sanctions will be increased "substantially" as Iran surpasses uranium enrichment limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal. 

The return to the "maximum pressure" campaign is more proof of Trump's reluctance to start another war in the Middle East, following his last-minute decision to cancel a military strike last month. But with the military option still on the table - and with a top adviser to Iran's president saying recently that "we consider war and sanctions as two sides of the same coin" - Congress is out of excuses in ducking its duty to consider whether and when to authorize any possible military action.

Recent measures in the House and Senate are a good start. The House voted Friday in favor of amendments, sponsored by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), to the annual defense spending bill that would prohibit unauthorized military force against Iran and restrict the scope of any future military action there. This follows a successful vote in the House last month to repeal the threadbare, one-size-fits-all 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) for Afghanistan through an omnibus appropriations bill, also advanced by Congresswoman Lee. And, on June 28, the Senate voted 50-40 for an amendment to its version of the defense bill that would similarly prohibit the use of funds to attack Iran without Congress' approval. But these efforts are unlikely to gain a veto-proof majority.

The Bush, Obama and Trump administrations all have used the 2001 AUMF - meant to target those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and "associated forces" - as a legal basis for a variety of military actions. In a private briefing with lawmakers in June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly made the case for reusing it and, in an interview on "Face the Nation," he said that "we always have the authorization to defend American interests."

I voted for the 2001AUMF while in Congress, and I considered it limited by time (the aftermath of 9/11) and space (largely Afghanistan). But as of 2016, it has been invoked nearly 40 times in 14 countries - as far-flung as Djibouti, Georgia and the Philippines - according to a Congressional Research Service report.

As for Iran, there is no evidence that a thorough National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) has been prepared or presented to Congress in accordance with the intelligence reforms many of us crafted on a bipartisan basis after two massive intelligence failures on 9/11 and Iraq. The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act requires NIEs to have vetted sources, highlight disagreements among agencies, and include a devil's-advocate assessment of the conclusions. Vague evidence presented in media interviews does not meet those standards.

Congress should demand an updated NIE on Iran, which would put the ball firmly in its court to decide whether and when to authorize future military action. An unspoken concern among lawmakers - and within the administration, in light of President Trump's hesitation to strike Iran - may be that neither party wants to "own" the consequences. There also is the question of whether a new AUMF should give broad authority to the president, or micro-manage any activity in Iran. But as long as the 2001 AUMF remains in force, the administration can claim legal cover to do whatever it wants. 

It is worth recalling that, after the 9/11 attacks, Iran's typically hostile rhetoric toward the U.S. was absent as its president condemned the terrorists and Iranians gathered for candlelight vigils. And the 9/11 Commission Report "found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack."

But now, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) dubbed a terrorist organization and the Trump administration taking aim at Iran's proxy organizations in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, there aren't many steps left before the administration links IRGC to al Qaeda 

Under our Constitution, Congress has the exclusive right to declare war. But this means little if the war chest is left unlocked. Lawmakers must exercise their constitutional responsibility to ensure that the American people understand the costs in blood and treasure of possible military action in Iran. Handing the White House a blank check is a recipe for yet another endless war.

Jane Harman is the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

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