What is Congress Willing to Do to Avoid War with Iran?

This week, the House of Representatives took further decisive steps to try and prevent President Donald Trump from embroiling the United States in another war in the Middle East. After the new year began with renewed fears of Washington waging war against Iran, tensions have eased slightly but few on Capitol Hill are content with the status-quo.

As a number of House Democrats have noted, the potential legal justifications for a Trump-initiated war against Tehran remain intact as laws. Members of Congress, however, will only rest assured about the application of these laws until they are amended or repealed. In that regard, House Democrats voted to adopt H.R. 550 under its amended title, the No War with Iran Act. As Arab Center Washington DC has detailed before, H.R. 550 consists of two individual pieces of legislation: one that repeals the 2002 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against Iraq and another that would prohibit US funds from paying for any war against Iran. To pass H.R. 550, Democrats in the House used a roundabout method: H.R. 550 previously passed the House as a completely unrelated bill and then went to the Senate, where it was amended and passed. When the Senate amended the House bill, H.R. 550 then had to return to the House for those members to agree to the Senate changes or subject the bill to further amendments—which eventually happened with the two aforementioned provisions regarding war with Iran. The Republican-led Senate is not interested in either bill so it is difficult to see the two chambers undertaking a conference committee to resolve the two bills’ differences. Even if it were to come to fruition and the two sides compromised on a singular bill, the White House has indicated it would veto any bill containing those two provisions.

Also in the House, Republican Congressman John Curtis (Utah) introduced a resolution expressing the sense of Congress that neither the 2001 nor the 2002 AUMFs shall be used to justify war with Iran. The Trump Administration has held at least once that the 2002 AUMF against Iraq justified assassinating Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, but even some Republicans are skeptical about that argument. The administration has since shifted its justification for that attack.

While Curtis’s resolution puts him on record as opposing war with Iran, he and other Republicans refused to support H.R. 550, which would actually repeal the law he is concerned about. Interestingly, Curtis criticized other “symbolic messaging gesture[s]” to stop war with Iran, yet his resolution is exactly that. That is actually one leading factor complicating Congress’s efforts to claw back some of its constitutional war powers authority and ensure that the United States does not stumble into a broader conflict with Iran under the current administration. Democrats only control one chamber and, because they know that anything remotely criticizing President Trump or challenging him too forcefully would be buried in the Senate, they have employed useless procedural methods to go on the record—although these offer little in the way of truly acting forcefully on the matter. Republicans, as observers can tell at this point, are completely unwilling to stand up to the leader of their party, even when his actions have proven most disruptive.

There are legitimate questions about whether or not President Trump would really go to war with Iran. But as the early days of the new year have starkly illustrated, circumstances can escalate quickly and the current administration may not necessarily have the understanding or the respect for Iran’s security policy to help prevent an involuntary escalation into war. Many members of Congress—on both sides of the political aisle—attest they want to prevent a war, but it is not quite clear what they are actually willing to do to stop one.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Neighbors Not Enemies Act. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) introduced H.R. 5734 which would repeal a law known as the Alien Enemies Act (AEA) in its entirety. According to a statement Omar issued regarding the legislation, the AEA was one of four laws passed specifically targeting immigrants and setting standards for how the government “apprehended, restrained, secured and removed” individuals from any number of countries. Omar also explained that the AEA was cited during the 2016 election campaign when then-candidate Trump first floated the idea of barring all entry of foreign Muslims into the United States. Omar’s effort came at the same time that the Trump Administration expanded the list of countries affected under the travel ban, including Sudan.

Condemning the Government of Iran’s State-Sponsored Persecution of Its Bahai Minority. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) introduced a resolution this week that served to condemn Iran for “state-sponsored persecution” of the Bahai religious community. As groups like Amnesty International have chronicled over the years, the Bahai community suffers under the ruling regime in Tehran; however, some view the constant criticism of Iran’s treatment of its Bahai minority as hypocritical when other countries are also known to persecute this same group. Regardless, such resolutions usually enjoy bipartisan support and this one will likely pass the chamber.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Senator Murphy Discusses “Downward Spiral” of Middle East Events. This week, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) held a conference call to discuss recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa and illustrated how all of the matters are directly related to what he described as “a massive failure of policy by [the Trump] administration.” Senator Murphy specifically pointed to a host of policy failures in the region. He predicted that Trump’s so-called “peace plan” would prove destabilizing and jeopardize security not just in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories but also in neighboring Jordan. Next he commented on how, in both Yemen and Lebanon, the influence of proxy and partner groups as well as the administration’s attempts to weaken Iranian influence have actually backfired and made the situations in both countries more precarious.

Finally, Murphy talked briefly about asking the Director of National Intelligence to investigate whether the Saudi leadership tried to hack the cell phone of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He finished by criticizing the Egyptian government for the recent death of a US citizen and the dubious detentions of other Americans. In the context of the latter instances, Murphy opined that President Trump’s unusual coziness with the autocratic rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia has emboldened each to act in ways that run counter to US security concerns.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Risch, Menendez Meet with IAEA Chief. This week the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), respectively, met with Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). According to Risch’s statement, he asked Grossi to push Iran for “full answers” regarding its nuclear program. Furthermore, he stated that “The United States is depending on the IAEA to provide a strong and independent voice to verify Irananian [sic] fulfillment of its nonproliferation obligations.” However, now that the Trump Administration, with support from congressional Republicans, has reneged on its own commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action governing Iran’s civilian nuclear program, Tehran is steadily refusing to observe its own commitments and is considering breaking with the very agency Risch stated Washington depends on to track Iran’s activities. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also held his own meetings with Grossi.

Senator Wyden Calls on AG Barr to Recuse Himself from Turkish Bank Case. On February 3, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) wrote to Attorney General Bill Barr asking him, among other things, if he is committed to recusing himself from investigations into or prosecution of Halkbank, a Turkish government-owned bank being prosecuted in the United States for evading Iran sanctions. According to Wyden’s letter, President Trump may have pressured Barr and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin to end investigations into the bank in order to appease Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the meantime, a US court paused the ongoing case.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Administration in Spin Mode since Unveiling Mideast Peace Plan. Since President Trump and his senior advisor, Jared Kushner, decided to release the details of what the president had famously christened the “deal of the century,” the administration has been seen and heard spinning the contents of the so-called peace plan to sell the public on its viability. Kushner took to the opinion pages of CNN to declare that “we [the Trump Administration] have established a clear path to a final peace agreement that meets the core requirements of both the Israeli and Palestinian people.”

At the State Department, Secretary Pompeo conducted a host of interviews and remarks (see here, here, and here) trying to sell the plan—one that largely contains an amalgam of items from a wish list by far right Israelis. Ambassador David Friedman also spoke before concerned audiences of evangelical Christians and American Jewish constituents to alleviate their fears of seeing a Palestinian state anytime soon.

Clearly, though, not all of the president’s advisors were on the same page. Friedman, who is arguably most in line with the right-wing settler factions in Israel, told reporters only minutes after President Trump’s unveiling of the plan that the Israeli government would not need to wait on the United States in order to annex illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must have understood Friedman’s proclamation as formal administration policy because, hours later, he said that he would hold a vote in the Israeli Knesset on annexing roughly 30 percent of the West Bank including the Jordan Valley. Kushner later reportedly poured cold water on that idea due to fear of upsetting Arab states in the region. Nevertheless, the Arab League and the broader Organization of Islamic Cooperation unanimously rejected the plan.

President Trump Talks IS, “Peace Plan,” and Iran During State of the Union. On February 4, President Trump delivered his third State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. As can be expected of any first-term president, Trump used his time in the spotlight to enumerate what he and his party find to be successes before priming for his reelection. However, this address was as bombastic and braggadocian as one of the president’s “Keep America Great” campaign-style rallies. In this regard, the president discussed defeating the so-called Islamic State, pressuring Iran and assassinating Qassem Soleimani, and bringing peace closer to fruition between Israelis and Palestinians.

While the US is Recognizing Annexed Lands, Israel Wants Washington to Back Morocco. A report was released this week detailing how the Israeli prime minister has been lobbying the Trump Administration to recognize Morocco’s claims over the territory of Western Sahara. The move is ostensibly intended as a quid pro quo: the United States would back Morocco’s claims and, as a reward for Israel’s time and attention, Rabat would normalize ties with Israel. The Western Sahara has been disputed since the 1970s when Spain relinquished control of the territory and Morocco and Mauritania claimed sovereignty over it. The Polisario Front, which is backed by Algeria, represents the Sahrawi people and continues to struggle against Morocco for the independence of Western Sahara.

2) Department of State

Coalition to Defeat IS Warns of Need to Remain Engaged against Group. After a meeting of officials from the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, the group released a detailed joint statement about next steps. The coalition affirmed that most, if not all, territory has been liberated from IS but it warned that the coalition must stay alert in addressing IS’s changing methods and plans of action. It also agreed that coalition partners must remain engaged in Syria and Iraq to ensure there is no backsliding for these states. Notably, the statement calls for remaining engaged with Iraqi security forces despite the fact that a US strike in Iraq had previously disrupted the coalition’s ability to work with the Iraqi Security Services.

Secretary Pompeo Speaks with Sudan’s General Burhan; Hale to Visit Mauritania. This week, Secretary Pompeo spoke with a leading figure in Sudan’s transitional government while the department announced that Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale will be visiting Mauritania soon. Pompeo and General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan spoke about strengthening US-Sudan ties, and Pompeo commended Burhan for meeting with Israel’s Netanyahu during the latter’s visit to Uganda. Pompeo also invited Burhan to Washington for bilateral meetings this year. As for Hale, the department’s readout states that he will meet with government officials for consultations on issues ranging from security and stability to combatting human trafficking.

3) Department of the Treasury

State, Treasury Take Joint Action on Iran. This week, during an on-camera briefing, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, announced two joint efforts taken by his office and the Treasury Department regarding Iran. First, Hook announced yet another round of sanctions, this time targeting the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and its head, Ali Akbar Salehi, for proliferating weapons of mass destruction. This decision follows Iran’s decision to further stray from the parameters of the JCPOA that the Trump Administration first started undermining in 2018.

Regarding sanctions, the Treasury Department announced that with the help of a Swiss interlocutor, it has allowed the first financial transactions to be carried out that will benefit humanitarian needs in Iran. Hook, specifically, along with the entire Trump Administration have consistently denied that humanitarian goods like medical equipment and medicines were unavailable to ordinary Iranians due to US sanctions. Now, however, the administration is lauding the creation of a tool that helps Iranians circumvent US sanctions in order to purchase those very goods, indirectly verifying that Iranians could not purchase medical equipment and medicines in the past, despite those products technically being exempt from US sanctions.

4) Department of Defense

Secretary Esper Meets with Israeli Defense Minister. On February 4, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper welcomed Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett to the Pentagon for a meeting on bilateral relations, regional security threats, and Iran. According to a separate report, Bennett was also supposed to meet with other government officials and even some members of Congress.

5) Central Intelligence Agency

Director Haspel Visits PA After Trump Releases Peace Plan. Concerned about the ramifications of the White House’s peace plan on intelligence cooperation between the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority (PA), the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, traveled to Ramallah this week for meetings with the PA’s top intelligence chief. According to some reports, other PA officials with whom Haspel met threatened to cut off all cooperation between the sides while Majid Faraj, of the PA’s intelligence unit, agreed to continue working with the United States.