The Trump administration and its domestic political allies are laying the groundwork for a possible confrontation with Iran without the explicit consent of Congress — a public relations campaign that was already well under way before top officials accused the Islamic Republic of attacking a pair of oil tankers last week in the Gulf of Oman.
Over the past few months, senior Trump aides have made the case in public and private that the administration already has the legal authority to take military action against Iran, citing a law nearly two decades old that was originally intended to authorize the war in Afghanistan.
In the latest sign of escalating tensions, National Security Adviser John Bolton warned Iran in an interview conducted last week and published Monday, “They would be making a big mistake if they doubted the president’s resolve on this.” Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan announced on Monday evening that the U.S. was deploying an additional 1,000 troops to the region for “defensive purposes.” And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to Tampa, home of Central Command, on Monday evening to huddle with military officials to discuss “regional security concerns and ongoing operations,” according to a State Department spokeswoman.
The developments came as Iran announced it was on course to violate a core element of its nuclear deal with major world powers, exceeding the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the agreement in 10 days unless European nations intervened to blunt the economic pain of American sanctions. And they came as U.S. officials promoted video footage and images showing what they say were Iranian forces planting explosive devices on commercial oil tankers.
Yet even as the president’s hawkish advisers have highlighted Iran’s alleged bad behavior, administration officials privately stressed that direct military action remained highly unlikely absent an Iranian attack on an American ship or an American citizen. The president, who campaigned against getting the U.S. bogged down in unnecessary foreign wars, is considered the primary internal obstacle to a counterattack, officials said, noting that Trump continues to press for an improved nuclear deal.
Still, to the alarm of Democrats and some Republicans, Pompeo has suggested that if the administration does take military action, it might rely on the 2001 congressional bill that greenlighted America’s military response to the 9/11 attacks to strike Iran. Asked Sunday by CBS host Margaret Brennan whether the administration believed it had the authority to initiate military action, Pompeo would say only, “Every option we look at will be fully lawful.”
And Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a close ally of the administration, urged the president to attack Iran outright — adding that he didn’t need permission from Congress. “Unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike,” Cotton told Brennan. “The president has the authorization to act to defend American interests,” he said.
But in a sign of some unease among other Republicans, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told POLITICO that she expected to discuss the legitimacy of that justification — and of military retaliation itself — with her Senate colleagues this week.
Trump has sent conflicting messages about his own intentions — one day signaling his desire to negotiate with the clerical regime in Tehran, the next dismissing Iran as unready for serious talks. “While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” Trump tweeted last Thursday, “I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!”
“The regime in Tehran is testing American patience with violence in the Gulf,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The administration now has to weigh its options.”
In some of Pompeo’s recent pronouncements, many on the left, and a few on the right, see the Trump team paving a path to war.
In April, the State Department named the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization, a legal designation that some fear could be used to link the elite paramilitary force with al Qaeda. Later, Pompeo also said Iran had “instigated” a May 31 suicide attack on a U.S. convoy in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban claimed credit for the incident.
Pressed by CBS’s Brennan on Sunday, Pompeo reiterated the claim. “[W]e have confidence that Iran instigated this attack,” he said. “I can’t share any more of the intelligence. But I wouldn’t have said it if the intelligence community hadn’t become convinced that this was the case.”
The secretary of state’s efforts to link Iran and al Qaeda and to terrorism more broadly have become a flashpoint in multiple congressional hearings this spring — and they have taken on renewed significance given the growing possibility of a military confrontation between the two countries.
“It’s not surprising that you have a kind of revisitation of the AUMF because here you have what looks like the potential for a kind of real escalation,” said Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East negotiator, referring to the 2001 bill that authorized military action against any national or individual involved in the 9/11 attacks.
“In the 2001 AUMF, there’s actually no real relationship to this,” Ross added. “It certainly didn’t name Iran and there comes a point where many in Congress want to have oversight over getting into a shooting war with Iran.”
As the president’s senior national security advisers huddled on Monday to consider how to respond to Iran, it was unclear how close the U.S. was inching to military action. Schanzer, for one, cast skepticism on an unattributed report in the Jerusalem Post on Monday that the U.S. had drawn up plans for a limited bombing campaign against an Iranian nuclear facility.
A senior administration official said Monday that the goal of the administration’s maximum pressure policy remains forcing the regime back to the table to negotiate a new and improved nuclear deal.
Iran has thus far been careful to avoid attacks on American vessels — an internal administration red line that would force a military response, this official said. Administration allies including FDD’s chief executive, Mark Dubowitz, said that while he expects U.S. sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to increase, it is less clear whether military action will result absent a direct attack against an American ship or an American citizen.
The president himself is caught between competing impulses: his disdain for the 2015 deal the Obama administration struck with Iran and his desire to strike a contrast, on the one hand, and his reluctance to get into another war in the Middle East on the other. He has long been more skittish than his hawkish advisers about ratcheting up tensions, but he sent a blunt warning to Iran’s leaders last month that “If they do anything it would be a very bad mistake.”
Last week, two lawmakers — Trump ally Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Democrat Elissa Slotkin (Mich.) — said that Pompeo had invoked the 2001 AUMF in a closed-door briefing with lawmakers about Iran, suggesting the administration could use it as a legal justification for war.
“We were absolutely presented with a full formal presentation on how the 2001 AUMF might authorize war on Iran,” Slotkin said. “Secretary Pompeo said it with his own words.”
Exiting an earlier closed-door briefing on May 21 by acting defense secretary Shanahan, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) told reporters, “What I heard in there makes it clear that this administration feels that they do not have to come back and talk to Congress in regards to any action they do in Iran.”
The Trump administration’s case against Iran has rested in part on the argument that it has supported al Qaeda. Announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2017, for example, Trump said that the country “supports terrorist proxies and militias,” including al Qaeda.
“Iran’s connection to al Qaeda is very real,” Pompeo told lawmakers in April. “They have hosted al Qaeda, they have permitted al Qaeda to transit their country. There is no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republican of Iran and al Qaeda. Period. Full stop.”
When Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pushed Pompeo in that hearing to pledge that the administration would not rely on the 18-year old war authorization to attack Iran, the secretary demurred, saying that he would “prefer to leave that to the lawyers.”
“I can tell you explicitly you have not been given power or authority by Congress to have a war with Iran and in any kind of semblance of a sane world you would have to come back and ask us before you go into Iran,” Paul retorted.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who was the only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF back in 2001, included an amendment repealing the provision in the defense appropriations bill currently being debated on the House floor. Her legislation would repeal the AUMF eight months after the appropriations bill becomes law, providing time, she has argued, for Congress to properly debate and vote on a replacement bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last month that the administration could not rely on the 2001 law to take military action in Iran, and more than 100 House Democrats followed up on her remarks by penning a letter to the president making a similar case.
“They cannot call the authorization, AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force that was passed in 2001, as any authorization to go forward in the Middle East now,” Pelosi said at a press conference in May.
Several Democratic presidential candidates have made similar comments. “If the administration wants to go to war against Iran, then the Constitution requires them to come to Congress to ask for an authorization for the use of military force,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), told The Intercept on Friday, calling it “Constitutional Law 101.”
In his campaign’s maiden foreign policy speech, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg argued for repealing and replacing the 2001 law in order to narrow its scope — an idea that has gained traction among some Democrats.
Some Republicans, however, say the administration could respond without getting a stamp of approval from Congress, drawing comparisons to the Reagan administration’s decision in 1987 to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers from Iranian attacks in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. Because U.S. law prohibits the use of Navy ships to escort foreign vessels, the Kuwaiti ships flew American naval flags.
“Reagan ended up sinking about half the Iranian Navy,” said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration. “Admittedly, it was a small navy, but they noticed.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to reporting.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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