Wed, Jan 29, 2:26 PM (19 hours ago)
January 29, 2020Dear Mr. Merriman,
Thank you for contacting me to express your concern about escalating tensions between the United States and Iran. I appreciate hearing from you regarding this important matter, and I share your concerns.
As your letter notes, on January 2, 2020, following protests led by Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, President Trump ordered U.S. forces to carry out a lethal airstrike near Baghdad International Airport. The strike killed General Qassem Soleimani, leader of the powerful Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Also killed was Iraqi commander and leader of Kataib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis.
This strike represented a dramatic escalation in tensions that have been boiling with Iran and in the surrounding region in recent months. It also raised legitimate questions among members of Congress, including myself, regarding the President’s authority to unilaterally order such strikes.
Under the War Powers Act of 1973, Congress has the sole authority to declare war on another country, and to authorize acts of war including the assassination of foreign government officials, except in cases of self-defense against an imminent threat. In the days immediately following the strike, Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, stated publicly that Iran had been plotting an “imminent attack,” and that the strike had been necessary to ensure the safety of American personnel in the region. But in the weeks since, no information to support that claim has been provided to Congress, despite repeated requests by senators on both sides of the aisle. During that time, several Trump administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Attorney General William Barr, publicly offered contradictory justifications for the strike. These discrepancies, and the administration’s failure to provide intelligence justifying an act of war to duly elected representatives of the American people, are both unacceptable and deeply unsettling.
Additionally, as your letter rightly notes, the strike killing Soleimani is not the first time that the Trump administration has escalated tensions with Iran—far from it. Instead, time after time, President Trump has chosen rash provocation over strategic solutions or diplomacy.
The current tensions with Iran go back to before the 2016 presidential election. During his campaign, then-candidate Trump pledged to “tear up” the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement (JCPOA). That landmark agreement – signed in 2014 after years of careful negotiation with our allies under the Obama administration – kept the Iranian government ten years away from developing a nuclear weapon, and subjected the country to rigorous, intrusive and unprecedented quarterly inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Just as there were some in the U.S. who opposed a deal with Iran, plenty of hardliners within the Iranian government—including extremists like Soleimani—fundamentally opposed any negotiations with the United States. However, through strategic international sanctions and diplomacy, the Obama administration and our allies were able to successfully negotiate a deal that kept Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This deal was resoundingly affirmed by Iran’s electorate: in the country’s parliamentary elections a year later, we saw moderate candidates make strong gains; the following year, moderates and reformists swept municipal elections across the country.
The nuclear deal was working. Over the course of three years, the independent inspectors verified nearly 20 times in a row that Iran was in compliance with the agreement. However, in May 2018, President Trump made good on his campaign promise, announcing that the United States would unilaterally pull out of the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran—despite their proven compliance. Shortly thereafter, the President imposed even harsher economic sanctions as part of his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Administration officials including Secretary Pompeo have stated that the purpose of these punishing sanctions is to bring Iran to the table to negotiate a better, more expansive nuclear deal to address Iran’s malign activities in the region. But these sanctions amount to economic war—and the Trump administration has taken no steps to convene talks with the Iranians. Meanwhile, in response to U.S. withdrawal from the deal, and pressure from the Trump administration on our European allies to impose similarly harsh sanctions on Iran, President Rouhani announced on May 9th, 2019 that Iran would resume enriching uranium in excess of amounts allowed under the nuclear deal. And following the Soleimani strike, Iranian leaders went a step further, announcing that they will no longer be bound by any part of the deal unless sanctions are lifted.
Thomas Friedman has described the Trump doctrine as, ‘Obama built it. I broke it. You fix it.’ It is clear that that analysis still holds true and that, in the short term, President Trump is willing to sacrifice our standing in the world for political gain. President Trump’s dangerous obsession with dismantling President Obama’s legacy, rather than building on the progress we’ve made, puts our national security at risk.
Following the U.S. strike that killed Soleimani, Iran’s leaders vowed retaliation. On January 8, 2020, Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at two Iraqi bases that house United States forces. No U.S. casualties were reported immediately following the strike, for which I am deeply grateful. It appears that, for the moment, Iran has chosen the path of de-escalation in response to President Trump’s rash provocation—and I hope that they will continue to do so. But hope is not a strategy, and the American people and the men and women serving our country in the Middle East deserve a better foreign policy than senseless escalation. Congress and the American people need to hear what the administration’s strategy is, and it must be based on facts and rooted in truth.
Despite provocations of the current administration, the moderate Iranian voices the Obama Administration worked so hard to lift up have not disappeared. The country’s population is overwhelmingly young, and many have cause to be dissatisfied with their leaders. Just a few short weeks ago, in December, Iranians took to the streets following a sudden hike in gas prices in what quickly turned into widespread protests against the repressive regime. However, once again, rather than seizing the moment and using that internal political pressure as leverage to bring Iran to the table for diplomatic talks, the administration continued escalations with Iran—ultimately carrying out a strike that, for now, appears to have united moderates and hard-liners in support of the country’s conservative leaders. While we shouldn’t be surprised by the events of the last few weeks, we must remember that it didn’t have to be this way.
The President has said he doesn’t want war with Iran. But it is hard to see how the actions of the Trump administration have made us safer. Today, as a result of the decisions of the Trump administration, Iran no longer has limits on its nuclear program, and the people of Iran have, for now, taken to the streets to rally behind the government and mourn General Soleimani. Because of our lack of strategy, in a matter of weeks, we have given the most extreme voices within the Iranian regime exactly what they wanted. This is no way to conduct our foreign policy—or to safeguard our national security.
With that having been said, I have led or supported numerous legislative efforts to check the President’s power when it comes to Iran. In June, I opposed ending debate on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 as part of a successful effort to secure a vote on my bipartisan amendment with Senator Udall (D-NM) which would prevent the Trump Administration from taking military action against Iran without the approval of Congress. I have also co-sponsored a standalone bill, S. 1039, the Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act, that would do the same.
This month, following the Soleimani strike, I joined Senator Kaine’s (D-VA) joint resolution to limit the President’s war powers. That resolution would reassert Congress’s Article One constitutional authority by directing the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities against the Islamic Republic of Iran unless and until such actions have been authorized by Congress. Consideration of the resolution is privileged under Senate rules; as such, its introduction effectively ensures that those of us in Congress will have to debate the merits and take a vote before the administration can start a war with Iran and send Americans into battle—an idea I strongly support. The House of Representatives approved a similar resolution on January 9, 2020.
Let me end by saying this: as the only Vietnam veteran still serving in the U.S. Senate, I have repeatedly warned against war with Iran. I served alongside the 55,000 men and women who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. They died, and many of us risked our lives, in a war that was premised on a lie. It was a similar situation with the Iraq War in 2003. Over 4,000 men and women laid down their lives based on the lie we were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
I have been to too many funerals of service members from Delaware who died in Iraq. I don’t want to go to any more. I don’t want to have to comfort any more spouses, children, parents, brothers and sisters as we’ve done in recent years for families that have been crushed by sorrow from our engagement with Iraq. As the Trump Administration’s Iran policy becomes ever more dangerous—and ever more isolated — from our traditional allies, I worry that this administration’s actions could very well plunge us into another foreign war if not corrected.
Please be assured that I am following this matter closely, and I will continue to work with my colleagues to hold the administration to account and ensure that the United States does not go to war with Iran without first seeking and obtaining authorization from Congress. Thank you once again for contacting my office. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future about this or other matters of importance to you.
With best personal regards, I am,
United States Senator