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 Trump 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 Udall (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 Powell’s questions that must be answered affirmatively before the United States should take military action:
1- Is a vital national security interest threatened?
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