Iran Policy Counterattack

In the past month, President Bush and his allies in the Congress have set Washington once again buzzing with speculation about the administration's end game for Iran -- having accused the Iranians of stoking a third world war and dubbed the Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. But as everyone from antiwar activists to military insiders wring their hands over the White House's intentions, a lonely handful of Democratic legislators are working to wedge Congress between the administration and Tehran.

Massachusetts Rep. John Tierney and Virginia Sen. Jim Webb have emerged as early leaders. With a few exceptions, their efforts have drawn tepid support from their colleagues, in both parties. But Tierney points to hopeful signs of a groundswell -- and sources say influential Democratic donors have begun demanding that party leaders match Bush’s saber rattling with an equally vocal chorus of caution.

In 1998, during a politically fraught moment in United States history, the Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed into law, the Iraq Liberation Act, which made ending Saddam Hussein’s regime an official U.S. policy goal. The legislation said as much explicitly: "It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq."

Nine years later, Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., introduced an eerily similar amendment to the 2008 Department of Defense spending bill, which passed with overwhelming support and will soon be U.S. law. "It should be the policy of the United States," the Kyl-Lieberman amendment reads, "to combat, contain, and roll back the violent activities and destabilizing influence inside Iraq of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its foreign facilitators such as Lebanese Hezbollah, and its indigenous Iraqi proxies." This should be accomplished, according to the language, with the "use of all instruments of United States national power in Iraq, including diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military instruments."

Two, in this case, doesn’t make a coincidence. It makes a pattern. But one of the key differences between 1998 and 2007 is that some on Capitol Hill -- including senators who voted against Kyl-Lieberman, and members who have opposed similar measures in the House -- see the writing on the wall. And unlike those who’ve been through this before -- people like Rep. Barbara Lee of California and Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin -- today’s voices of caution can point to their Iraq war predecessors, who spoke out against the invasion before it was popular to do so, and were ignored.

"It was the escalating rhetoric from the Bush administration," Tierney told me on Thursday when I asked him about his new focus; a fear that "the administration may be more concerned with regime change than with behavioral changes from the Iranian government.”

Tierney sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence and chairs a National Security and Foreign Affairs subcommittee, beneath the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Two weeks ago, he initiated a series of subcommittee hearings, inviting experts to teach the Congress about Iran—what the Iranian people support, how their government works, how they can be engaged diplomatically, and what the costs of military action against Iran would be. At Thursday's hearing, the second in the series, five former diplomats and national security experts -- four of whom sat in staunch opposition to military action -- placed the chances of an American strike against Iran at between 20 and 50 percent over the next nine months.

After the hearing, I asked Tierney which of his congressional colleagues were most concerned about the situation and most interested in participating in an effort to prevent the administration's rhetorical volleys from being supplanted with bombs. He noted members’ heightened engagement at both hearings. But Tierney demurred on the question of naming allies -- members of a potential anti-escalation caucus. That may be because the total numbers are still too low, particularly in the Senate. And therein lies the problem.

Steve Clemons, who directs the American Strategies program at the non-partisan New America Foundation, argues that, in the wake of Kyl-Lieberman, powerful Democrats, even ones who voted for the browbeating amendment, should support Webb’s efforts. "Forget about Constitutional questions. Those went out the window with Kyl-Lieberman. What the Senate can do, if it wants to stop an attack or an accidental war, is get Hillary Clinton and more powerful Democrats to get 50 votes for something -- even if it's not binding, even if it's 50 signatures on a letter -- showing that a majority of the Senate opposes a conflict."

Emily Blout, acting legislative director for the National Iranian American Council, echoes Clemons. "First and foremost, in the short term, we need more activity along the lines of what Tierney and Webb are doing," says Blout. "Ultimately we should move to legislation—to something like Webb's bill." And that's exactly what most activists, experts, and donors would like to see as well. Some propose the possibility of inter-parliamentary meetings between Iranian politicians and members of the United States Congress.

And that's exactly what many activists and donors would like to see as well. According to Capitol Hill sources who asked not to be named, influential Democratic donors are planning, in the coming days, to push senior Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee and in the Senate leadership to invite Admiral William Fallon -- the Commander of U.S. Central Command, who has cautioned against military action in Iran and criticized the continued drumbeat -- to testify. They believe Fallon’s views—well known, but never attested to before the government—could snowball Webb’s efforts into something more meaningful.

Recently, Webb sent a letter to President Bush emphasizing his belief "that offensive military action should not be taken against Iran without the express consent of Congress." It was signed by 29 other members. But 60 votes would be needed if any binding legislation is to make it to the Oval Office. And with more extreme measures, like closing the purse, off of the Democratic leadership's table, the best shot may be for more of the most respected, influential figures in the country—who see the threat before them—to follow the leaders and raise their voices loudly.

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