On April 22, President Trump took to Twitter and threatened to attack Iran, instructing the Navy to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” The tweet was both alarming and cringeworthy — boats don’t fly. But it was also commonplace. Trump has threatened to start a war with Iran so many times that it almost feels banal.
It would be a mistake to let Trump’s threats toward Iran become normal. Taken together with his withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reimposition of debilitating sanctions, and attempts to kill the JCPOA once and for all, Trump’s maximum pressure approach to Iran is deadly serious. Fortunately, a majority of Congress sees it that way, too.
Last week, Congress tried and came up short of enacting a War Powers Resolution (WPR) to block Trump’s march to war with Iran. Unable to muster a two-thirds majority to override Trump’s veto, some may be asking whether it’s futile for Congress to keep legislating on this. But continued congressional action and oversight is crucial for an administration hell-bent on circumventing the constitution, pursuing regime change in Iran no matter the consequences for ordinary Iranians, and tying the hands of future presidents to limit their ability to change course.
The constitution exclusively grants Congress the power to decide whether to put U.S. servicemembers in harm’s way.
Congressional action matters for several reasons. First, it’s a counterweight to Trump’s supercharged anti-Iran bully pulpit. While starting a new war with Iran is unpopular—a University of Maryland poll found that 76 percent of Americans want to use tools short of war to confront Iran—Iran also remains deeply unpopular within the United States. That leaves room for Trump and his powerful Iran hawk backers to sway public opinion in favor of war. According to Gallup polling, from 2018 to 2020, the percentage of Americans who believe Iran represented the greatest threat to the United States jumped from seven to 19 percent.
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Rightly understanding that the public is vulnerable to propaganda, Congress did the right thing by passing the WPR, even if they knew would be vetoed. As Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the measure’s lead sponsor, explained of the bipartisan legislative push, “The president doesn’t really care about Congress, but he does care deeply about voters… We think …it will make the president realize just how unpopular a rush into another war would be.”
Second, Congress must keep acting because the rule of law should still matter in the United States. Trump’s increasingly successful efforts to turn this country into an autocracy isn’t just affecting the Justice Department and Supreme Court, but also congressional powers. The constitution exclusively grants Congress the power to decide whether to put U.S. servicemembers in harm’s way. Yet in Trump’s veto message, he arguably went the furthest he has ever gone to make the case that his war powers exceed those of Congress’s, effectively claiming that the president is unrestrained in his ability to wage war. This is simply not true. Unfortunately, Congress has not done itself any favors to be in a position to reclaim its war powers, having long ceded much of its authority to the executive by failing to repeal the post-9/11 use of force authorization and the Iraq war authorization. With seven out of seven Trump vetoes being about congressional national security powers and two out of seven specifically about war authority, pushing forward with the war powers vote despite the threat of veto helps demonstrate that Congress is willing to fight for its prerogatives.
Finally, Congress must, at a minimum, make a concerted effort to block Trump from starting a war because we’re in danger of foreclosing diplomacy with Iran for future presidents. As others have argued, whether it’s trying to box in a future president (say, Biden) from removing devastating sanctions on Iran or seeking to create a crisis by triggering the collapse of the JCPOA, Iran regime change supporters are working to make diplomacy with Iran significantly more difficult should President Trump lose the next election. In addition, congressional support for diplomacy with Iran is decidedly mixed in the Trump era. A number of progressive Democrats signed a problematic letter that could be used by Iran hawks to undermine the JCPOA. Given this reality, Congress must be crystal clear that starting a war (as opposed to responding to Iranian aggression) is off the table. In so doing, it signals to moderate voices in Iran that not all of the United States is hostile and eager for conflict, and keeps some space open for a new president to restart good faith negotiations.
There should be little doubt that Trump will once again threaten Iran before the 2020 election. All threats should be met with the same seriousness that Congress has displayed thus far. In addition to the tools it has under the War Powers Act to bring expedited bills to the floor, the Democratic House majority has passed bills invoking its constitutionally-given power of the purse and repealing the Iraq War authorization to close off other avenues to war. As this Congress winds down and must-pass legislation moves to the floor, the bipartisan majority that has come together on this issue should not stop working to enact legislation to reclaim its war powers and block Trump from taking us to war with Iran.