Congress on U.S.-Iran Tensions

August 1, 2019

In mid-2019, members of key Senate and House committees—on foreign affairs, intelligence and armed services—were divided on how to handle escalating tensions between the United States and Iran. 

Democrats raised concerns that the Trump administration was leading the United States into a war without congressional approval. They claimed that the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign and angry rhetoric had provoked an aggressive response from Tehran. Many Democrats on these committees called for restraint and a return to diplomacy, by either returning to the 2015 nuclear deal or strengthening its terms. California Senator Dianne Feinstein said, “Sanctioning Iran’s supreme leader and exchanging insults does nothing more than push a diplomatic resolution further out of reach. We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results.”

Republicans, however, praised President Trump’s restraint and denied that he sought a military confrontation after recent Iranian provocations. They blamed Tehran for escalating regional tensions. Iowa Senator Joni Ernst said, “The recent actions by Iran show its increasing desperation in the face of President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign including economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. I agree with the president that we do not want a war with Iran.” The following are remarks by U.S. lawmakers. 
 

Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

James Risch (ID), Chairman:  “We do not want war with the Iranians. And we have heard the president say that. There isn't anybody in this building that wants war with the Iranians. Having said that, the ball is in their court. They every day commit malign activities that is designed to aggravate us, to hurt us. Indeed, there's thousands of U.S. soldiers who were either killed or injured in recent years in the Middle East, all because of Iran's malign activity. —June 8, 2019, in an interview with PBS

 

Robert Menendez (NJ), Ranking Member: “I understand that this Administration, and this State Department, believes that the 2001 9/11 AUMF could be twisted anew to provide legal cover for any U.S. combat action against Iran, based upon some fictive connection between Tehran and Al-Qaeda.  This is absurd, and I ask our witnesses today not to insult our intelligence by claiming that.”

“There are few remaining limits to a President’s ability to wage war. That must change, before we find ourselves in another war in the Middle East, without Congress’ approval and possibly with Iran.” ––July 24, 2019 in a Senate hearing on AUMF

“First, we need a diplomatic surge on Iran to meaningfully engage our allies and Iran in serious negotiations to end its pathway towards nuclear weapons and its malign activities. Second, Congress has not authorized war with Iran, and the Administration, if it were contemplating military action with Iran, must come to Congress to seek approval.”––May 15, 2019, in a statement on Iran tensions

 

Majority Members

Marco Rubio (FL): “The regime in Tehran still has not been held accountable for concealing from international inspectors its dangerous ‘Atomic Archive’ for rapid nuclear weaponization. Iran also continues to blatantly ship millions of barrels of oil to China, which has foolishly poured investments into Iranian oil fields and now wants to be paid back in cash or in kind. The Trump administration should take enforcement actions against the Iranian and Chinese governments, which appear to be clearly violating U.S. primary and secondary sanctions against Iran." ––July 2, 2019, in a press release

“If there is any serious indication that Americans anywhere are threatened, we must position ourselves to protect them, defend them, extract them, and retaliate if they are attacked.  And the second thing we should all be able to agree on is if Americans come under attack, even if it’s from a proxy force directed by a foreign agent like the IRGC, not only must we defend against that attack, but we must punish it with swift retaliation.” ––May 16, 2019, in a press release

 

Ron Johnson (WI): “I hope [we are not heading closer to war with Iran]. But let’s face it –– Iran has been a malign influence, the largest state-sponsor of terror since its founding in the late 70s. You go down the list of the Beirut bombings, the IEDs they supplied in the Iran-Iraq War, their involvement in Syria and in Yemen. That is why we were so opposed to the Iranian agreement.” ––July 21, 2019 on CNN’s State of the Union

 

Mitt Romney (UT):

 

Lindsey Graham (SC): “I would tell the Europeans, if you want to side with the Iranians, be my guest, but you are not going to use an American bank, you're not going to do business with the American economy. You need to pick the ayatollah or the United States. Those are your choices.” ––July 14, 2019, on Fox News

“The reason the president got out of the JCPOA is that after 10 years there are no limits on the enrichment reprocessing capabilities of the Iranians. Again, there are 50 nations throughout the world that have nuclear power that don't make their own fuel. The way you make a bomb is you enrich and reprocess, going- but the difference between nuclear grade fuel and a bomb is a matter of months. So, what I think the president should do is offer the Iranians and the Arabs the same deal. One, two, three agreements for the entire region- Arab and Iranian region where you can have nuclear power you get your fuel from the Russians and the Chinese, the Iranians can and we'll provide it to the Arabs. That's the only good outcome I think. And I think anything less than that is going to lead to an Iranian breakout, and that puts Israel in a really bad box.” ––June 30, 2019, on CBS’s Face the Nation

 

Rand Paul (KY):

"You know, I’m for less troops in the Middle East. I think it’s a mistake to keep ramping things up. One of the things I liked about President Trump is that he said the Iraq War was a mistake. I think an Iran War would be an even bigger mistake than the Iraq War. We lost over 4,000 soldiers there. I don’t think we need to get involved in another war. Iran is really not someone that we depend on for oil. The Middle East, in fact, we don’t depend on for oil anymore. And so, no, I think it’d be a mistake to get involved in another shooting war."  ––June 30, 2019, in an interview with Fox News

“I'm really proud of President Trump for showing restraint.  I think it shows -- it really takes a statesman to show restraint amidst a chorus of voices for war.” ––June 24, 2019, in an interview with Fox News

 

Todd Young (IN): “I share the concern of many of my colleagues about the role Congress must play in authorizing the use of military force, and I look forward to this important discussion in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee… As I have said repeatedly, we must ensure Congress fulfills its constitutionally mandated role.” ––July 23, 2019 in a Press Release

 

Minority Members

Christopher Coons (D-DE): I think it's important that there be lines of communication open between us and the Iranians. We've been asking for the administration to send someone to brief us on the strategy that they are intending to follow in the event there's an escalation like the one you referenced, the seizure of an American flagged tanker.”

 -- July 25, 2019 in an interview with Fox News

 

Tom Udall (NM):

 

Chris Murphy (CT): 

 

 

Cory Booker (NJ): “First and foremost, it was a mistake to pull out of that deal. And one of the reasons why we are seeing this hostility now is because Donald Trump is marching us to a far more dangerous situation. Literally, he took us out of the deal that gave us transparency into their nuclear program and push back a nuclear breakout 10—20 years. And now we see Iran threatening to go further and who are pulled—being pulled in further and further into this crisis. We need to greet renegotiate and get back into a deal, but I’m not going to have a primary platform to say unilaterally I’m going to rejoin that deal because when I am president of the United States, I’m going to do the best I can to secure this country and that region and make sure that if I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal, I’m going to do it.” —June 26, 2019, at the first Democratic debate

 

Jeanne Shaheen (NH): “As intended, the Iran deal significantly constrained Iran’s nuclear activity. In following through on his reckless campaign promise to withdraw from the Iran deal, President Trump is ignoring the sound guidance of his military leadership, diplomats, fellow Republicans and our nation’s closest allies, all at the expense of our national security interests. This decision needlessly discards our only effective means of curtailing Iran’s nuclear capabilities and emboldens hardliners in Iran to resume nuclear weapons activity. It also severely undermines the credibility and negotiation leverage of the United States in resolving current and future crises through diplomacy. Decisions of this magnitude should be based on the long-term security interests of our country, not political expediency.” —May 8, 2018, in a press release

 

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

Richard Burr (NC), Chairman: “I agree with President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA.  This deal, which was not ratified by the United States Senate under the Constitution’s requirements for treaties, was based on the naive hope by the previous administration that the world’s number one state sponsor of terror would change its bad behavior in exchange for terms, including sanctions relief.  This deal was also weakened by the inclusion of a sunset provision, a condition that only delayed Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and did not stop them.”

––May 18, 2018, in a press release

 

Mark Warner (VA), Ranking Member : “Iran’s provocation must be taken very seriously. No nation can be permitted to strike U.S. assets in international airspace without consequences. However, we also need to ensure that any response to Iran’s destabilizing behavior is part of a coherent strategy, and that we take care not to escalate an already-volatile situation in the Middle East. America’s position is strengthened when we have allies standing with us. As the U.S. weighs an appropriate response, the President must work with our allies and continue to consult broadly with Congress.” ––June 20, 2019, in a press release

 

Majority Members

Susan Collins (ME): “The 2015 agreement is fundamentally flawed because it leaves Iran as capable of building a nuclear weapon at the expiration of the agreement as it was when it first went into effect.  Under the terms of the agreement, Iran merely has to be patient in order to ultimately design and develop a nuclear arsenal.  In addition, the agreement did not stop Iran from testing and developing ballistic missiles, and the inspection regime it instituted was insufficient and ignored Iran’s history of noncompliance.” ––May 8, 2018, in a press release

 

Roy Blunt (MO): 

 

John Cornyn (TX): “Now is the time to finish this phased-in approach and bring Iranian oil exports to zero. Thanks to your leadership, U.S. oil production is booming and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) believes the global market can now absorb ending all SREs without a significant impact on oil prices – even after considering other market factors like Venezuela.  EIA estimates that ending SREs would also benefit U.S. production, with a significant increase in U.S. oil exports and the creation of American jobs.  These changes would help ween the global community away from destabilizing Iranian oil while diminishing their economic and political influence.” ––May 8, 2018, in a letter to President Trump

 

Minority Members

Dianne Feinstein (CA): “Sanctioning Iran’s supreme leader and exchanging insults does nothing more than push a diplomatic resolution further out of reach. We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results.” —June 25, 2019, in a press release

“President Trump and senior members of his administration are increasing the chances of an unnecessary military conflict with Iran. A war is neither inevitable nor in anyone’s interest. The president’s approach isn’t working. Since he abandoned the nuclear agreement, Iran has refused to return to the negotiating table and taken its own steps to leave the agreement; tensions between our countries have only grown worse.” —May 15, 2019, in a press release

 

Kamala Harris (CA): “[Kamala will] stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but without isolating the United States diplomatically and risking an unnecessary war.” ––Platform, American Leadership at Home & Abroad

 

Angus King (I-ME): “Iran has been a malign actor for 40 years, and the question is what’s different this year, as opposed to 1985, 1995, 2007? And what’s concerning is we’re putting on pressure, which may work, but what if it doesn’t? It’s a high-stakes gamble.” —June 24, 2019, in an interview

 

Michael Bennett (CO):

 

Senate Committee on Armed Services

Republican James Inhofe (OK), Chairman: “As we’ve seen from recent attacks, the threats from Iran and its proxies are real. President Trump and his administration have sought to prevent war, responding proportionately and appropriately to these provocations.” ––June 28, 2019, in a press release

“I have long identified the lack of inspections for undeclared sites, Iran’s ability to develop nuclear technology and sunset provisions as critical flaws of the deal, and I appreciate President Trump’s commitment to addressing these concerns. If these flaws are not corrected, I fully support the president reinstating nuclear sanctions against the regime in Iran.” ––January 12, 2018, in a press release

 

Democrat Jack Reed (RI) Ranking Member: “No President should take the American people into a war without a strategy and a clear-eyed assessment of the costs of military engagement. With respect to Iran, the dangers of miscalculation on both sides are acute at the moment.”

“The Administration’s actions and rhetoric related to Iran have created a credibility deficit.  This is a fast changing and dangerous situation, and it is clear that there is not a consensus within the international community with respect to Iran’s plans and intentions.  Given these disconnects, it is imperative for the Administration to provide Congress with current, unvarnished intelligence so that we may reach substantiated conclusions.” ––June 28, 2019 in an address to the U.S. Senate

 

Majority Members

Tom Cotton (AR): “[President Trump] touched on the fundamental nature of Iran’s regime for 40 years. They’ve been waging a campaign of terror and aggression against the civilized world, trying to overthrow the governments of their neighbors, taking hostages and supporting terrorism. He kind of summed up the challenges they face now. Their economy is on the verge of a depression. We’ve totally crushed them with our sanctions, taking hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, away from them that would go to terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. And he summed up what they’re doing. They’re lashing out right now because of the constraints of those sanctions, and they fear the last remnant of the nuclear deal will fall apart as well.”

––July 23, 2019 on the Hugh Hewitt Show

 

Joni Ernst (IA): “The recent actions by Iran show its increasing desperation in the face of President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign including economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. I agree with the president that we do not want a war with Iran. Should Iran continue these nefarious actions, and military action be warranted, Congress must play an integral role in that process—and that should include a briefing by the administration on the matter. Iran should make no mistake about it: we will defend ourselves, our allies, and our interests in the region.” ––July 17, 2019 in a Press Release

 

Thom Tillis (NC): "If you don't go after them, they'll spread their influences. Hundreds of millions a year go into the terrorist organizations and the country aided and assisted militia that killed hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq during the conflict there." ––May 15, 2019 in an interview with Fox News

 

Rick Scott (FL): “Last week I called on President Trump to withdraw from the reckless deal because it is naïve to think that the same people who chant ‘death to America’ and vow to destroy the entire state of Israel will be honest and play by the rules. Israel is our friend and our ally and I am always going to stand with them – not those that wish harm against Israel. The president made the right move today by scrapping the Iran Deal and re-imposing sanctions against the Iranian regime. The deal has done very little to stop Iran from staying on the path of developing a nuclear weapon, and a nuclear Iran is a dangerous proposition to the United States, Israel, and our other allies in the region. I look forward to the Administration pursuing ways to make sure we keep these weapons out of the hands of the Iranian regime.” ––May 8, 2018 in a press release

 

Marsha Blackburn (TN): “Their economy is shrinking 6 to 10 percent this year. Inflation is at 40 percent. And President Trump is doing exactly what he ought to be doing with keeping the pressure on, on those sanctions, and making certain that the regime realizes we know what they are up to.” —July 6, 2019 in an interview with Fox News

 

Minority Members

Elizabeth Warren (MA): “If the administration wants to go to war against Iran, then the Constitution requires them to come to Congress to ask for an authorization for the use of military force. This is Constitutional Law 101, that it is Congress, not the president, that declares war… We would have to have a debate on the floor of the Senate. And if the administration doesn’t believe that they can withstand a debate, then they shouldn’t be aiming themselves toward war.”

––June 14, 2019 in an interview with The Intercept

 

Kirsten Gillibrand (NY): “President Trump is hell-bent on starting a war with Iran. My first act will be to engage Iran to stabilize the Middle East and make sure we do not start an unwanted never-ending war.” —June 27, 2019, at the second Democratic debate

 

Tim Kaine (VA): “I’m deeply worried that the Trump Administration is leading us toward an unnecessary war with Iran. One year ago, the President withdrew the United States from the deal that prevented Iran from building nuclear weapons. In the months since, Trump’s White House has taken a series of actions to increase tensions, including misrepresenting the regular deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln as a warning to Iran. Let me make one thing clear: The Trump Administration has no legal authority to start a war against Iran without the consent of Congress.” —June 8, 2019, in a press release

 

Tammy Duckworth (IL): 

 

House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Eliot Engel (NY), Chairman: “Today, we’re hearing a great deal of unexplained rhetoric from the Administration about Iran and seeing an escalation throughout the region. Given the dangers of miscalculation and everyone’s desire to avoid another Iraq, the Administration must inform Congress immediately of any evidence of a new Iranian threat and Congress must take the utmost care in assessing this intelligence.”

“In the meantime, the United States needs to work with our allies to de-escalate regional tensions and avoid circumstances which would plunge us into a major conflagration.”  —May 15, 2019, in a press release

 

Michael McCaul (TX), Ranking Member: “It almost shows a more human element to him. A side that we don't normally see. We usually see a president that hits back. Whether it be a tweet or whatever he hits back and now you have Iran hitting a U.S. military asset and he's not hitting back. I know from that meeting he has no appetite to go to war in Iran. He doesn't want to get dragged into a 10 year, decade war in Iran. He wants to do everything he can to exhaust every other possibility to stop that from happening. He wants Iran to be nuclear free and he thinks this is the best way to do it.” —June 26, 2019, on CBS’s Face the Nation

 

House Select Committee on Intelligence

Adam Schiff (CA), Chairman: “I don’t think for the most part Iran wants war with the United States and I think for the most part the president doesn’t want war with Iran. The bigger risk is that we blunder our way into war.” —July 20, 2019, at the Aspen Security Forum

“This [downing of a U.S. drone] is the result not just of the last 24 hours but of the last 24 months of reneging on the Iran nuclear deal when Iran was complying of increasing economic pressure and forcing our allies to do the same and urging our allies, essentially, to negate, to nullify the treaty and then being surprised when Iran says it's going to go back to enriching. It would be surprising if they didn't. It is the foreseeable result of this.

And here we have this so-called maximum pressure campaign meeting a maximum resistance campaign. And that is maximizing the likelihood of conflict and potential war. So the fact that this wasn't foreseen by the administration, that they appeared surprised by the Iranian reaction, tells me that their strategic thinking, it leaves a great deal to be desired.” —June 21, 2019, in an interview with NPR

 

Devin Nunes (CA), Ranking Member: “Iran continues to escalate. Iran continues to add more capable weapons. They are very capable in the cyber realm. So, what I think we have to do is as threats increase, we have to make sure that, there is no reason to have non-essential people in harm’s way.” —May 17, 2019, in an interview on Fox News

 

House Armed Services Committee

Adam Smith (WA), Chairman: “I think we need to  take a step back here to- to- what- what is the policy? What are we trying to accomplish? I mean, we're in a conversation about what happened with the drone but the drone really was a part- was a small piece of a much larger picture and that is the maximum pressure campaign that this administration has put on Iran. And what's confusing to me is, when the president met with us he emphasized that the purpose of this campaign was to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

“We do this maximum pressure campaign to cripple the Iranian economy to back them into a corner where our own intelligence people told us this is what Iran would do. And yet even though we knew they were going to do it we didn't know how to respond. And it's not getting them to the negotiating table. They're not there.” —June 23, 2019, on CBS’s Face the Nation

 

Mac Thornberry (TX), Ranking Member:  "If they go back to mining tankers, shooting at American aircraft, the sort of pattern of activity we've seen since April, then obviously the president has a whole range of additional responses that he could employ.” —June 23, 2019, in an interview on ABC