Congressional Remarks on U.S.-Iran Tensions

U.S. lawmakers have been divided over what to do next to deal with the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran. The split is largely along partisan lines. Democrats voiced concern that the Trump administration was leading the United States into a new Middle East war. “The Trump administration is breaking w/our allies & attempting to provoke war with Iran. I’m taking action to prevent it,” tweeted Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), who introduced legislation to bar the administration from using military force against Iran without approval from Congress.

Republicans largely denied that the administration sought war with Iran but emphasized that the United States would respond forcefully if its forces in the Middle East were attacked. “We can debate whether designation of #IRGC provoked all this. But right now Americans serving us in #Iraq are facing a serious & imminent threat. #Iran need to know that if they are attacked a UNITED States of America will respond decisively,” said Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a tweet. Representative Mac Thornberry, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters that “if Americans are attacked, then I think the president has authority to respond to those attacks.”


One divergent Republican viewpoint came from Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), who challenged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the administration’s constitutional authority to strike Iran in a Senate hearing on April 10. “Only Congress can declare war. You do not have our permission to go to war in Iran and that should be very explicit,” Paul said at the time.

The administration planned to brief congressional leaders on May 16 on intelligence purportedly indicating that Iranian proxies prepared attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities in the Middle East.


Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL)

“President Trump’s policy, at the direction of Mr. Bolton, seems to have only increased regional tensions, incentivized Iran to restart its nuclear program, and fomented a pretext for another Middle Eastern war,” Durbin said.  “When I hear our advisors, in general terms, talk about short wars, I think about Iraq and I think about Afghanistan and the fact that 18 years later, with gravestones all across the United States, we are still paying the price for decisions that were made so long ago.  Let us think twice before we engage in direct military confrontation with any country, and certainly with Iran.” 

—May 22, 2019, in a floor statement 


“The Trump Administration’s confrontational policy with Iran runs the risk of escalation to deadly levels.  Talking tough on a tweet is easy.  Living with the grim reality of war is not.” 

—May 21, 2019, in a statement after a classified briefing on Iran 

“Let me be clear on something I’ve said regardless of who is in the White House, a Republican or Democratic president: Article 1 Section 8 of our Constitution is clear, that Congress has the authority – the only authority – to declare war.  This President, any president, must first have the approval of the people’s representatives in Congress before asking our sons and daughters to enter into battle.”

“It’s not too late for an off-ramp.  This Administration should return to the only reasonable, smart, and effective option on the table for countering Iran – rejoin the nuclear agreement immediately; repair our strained relationship with our own allies; and use that unity to push back on Iran’s destabilizing actions across the region, which exist outside the nuclear realm.  Anything else is reckless.”

—May 14, 2019, in remarks on the Senate floor



Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR)

"Yes, [the United States could win a war against Iran with] two strikes. The first strike and the last strike."

"I don’t advocate military action against Iran. I’m simply delivering the message that if Iran were to attack the United States, it would be a grave miscalculation on their part and there would be a furious response."

"What I want is to have an outlaw regime change its behavior, to rejoin the civilized world and stop supporting terrorism and trying to overthrow the governments of so many of its neighbors."

"Ultimately it’s up to the Iranian people and their leaders to decide how they’re going to govern their country, but with men like those in charge of Iran, I think we’re going to see what we’ve seen for the last 40 years, which is a revolutionary theological movement that’s hijacked the powers of a nation-state."

—May 14, 2019, in an interview with Margaret Hoover of “Firing Line”


Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Representative Jim Himes (D-CT)

“Take one look at the chaos in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan and it’s hard to imagine why any American leader would be itching to put the United States into another foreign war. But that’s what could be happening right now, as the hawkish advisers to President Donald Trump walk us toward conflict with Iran. Americans need to know the risks of this dangerous game of escalation, and raise their voices against another disastrous Middle Eastern conflict.”

“Make no mistake: The Iranian regime is a vile one. The two of us have voted for practically every single measure and sanction to punish Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, its development of prohibited weapons and its abhorrent human rights abuses. The ayatollahs of Tehran are in a category with the brutal regimes of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. But no matter how much Hussein and Gadhafi deserved to be removed from power, our military actions to take down those regimes ended up creating more misery than they prevented.”

“We ask that the administration brief Congress on the situation in an open and transparent way and acknowledge that the Constitution grants war-making authority solely to Congress, not the Oval Office. Critically, President Trump must understand that the authorization for the use of military force that Congress passed in 2001 against al-Qaeda does not authorize hostilities against Iran, no matter how much Pompeo would like to link Iran and al-Qaeda.”

—May 15, 2019, in an op-ed for USA Today


Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT)


Senator Angus King (I-ME)

KING: I can't reveal what I have seen in a classified setting. I can report that you have seen a lot of public reporting about heightened Iranian activity in the region, particularly Iraq. That's accurate. That's what the administration is saying publicly. The question though is what does it mean. There are two issues worrying me. One is who is provoking whom? In other words, we know Iran is taking actions. We're taking actions. We declared the IRCG is an organization. We have ratcheted up the sanctions. We moved major military assets to the Middle East.

Are they reacting because they are concerned about what we are doing or are we reacting because we are concerned what they are doing. That raises my second concern which is miscalculation. The guns of August. One of the great books written about the origin of World War II. Nobody knew how it started. It started small and escalated. That's what worries me. You've got, for example, the Shia militia in Iraq which are not fully under control of the Iraqi government. They are partially affiliated with Iran. Are they under control? Say a group of people from the Shia militia attack Americans. Is that an Iranian attack or something that could trigger an escalation by us versus Iran and suddenly we are on the ladder. That's worrying me. That's why I think the president is right according to the reporting that we have heard this morning to slow this thing down and express a little restraint on some of his advisers who seem to be getting us into a position where something pretty awful could happen

CNN: We don't have to go back to World War II. We all remember the faulty Intel that led to the belief about WMD and the Iraq war.

KING: Well, I don’t think there’s faulty intel here necessarily, I think the intel might be accurate, but the unanswered question is: ‘are they reacting to our assertions in the Middle East. That's an unanswered question for me. It's a really good question. Why would the U.S. Be provoking Iran? Supporting terrorists, they have killed Americans in Lebanon and other places. They are not good guys at all. The president is trying to put pressure on them. And that’s really the question here, what’s the endgame? What’s the pressure for? If the pressure is to elicit further concessions in the nuclear field or control ballistic missiles – OK. If the pressure is regime change in Tehran which John Bolton said was his goal, then – that may be unattainable. That's where we get into the escalation. It's a very, very volatile, dangerous situation. I'm gravely concerned. Because of the possibility of miscalculation, misunderstanding, misreading of some event and all of the sudden you're on the ladder of escalation that could be dangerous for this country and for the Middle East.

CNN: John Bolton has been pushing for regime change for years. I mean, we can go back to interviews here on CNN from 2006, 2007. Do you have faith in him as national security adviser?

KING: Well, it's not up to me. The president appoints his own national security adviser. There is no question that John Bolton has an agenda. In 2015 he was telling Iranian exiles we'll be celebrating in the streets of Tehran in 2019. Here we are. So I have deep concerns. What the reporting is, and we are all reading the tea leaves, but the reporting is the president is concerned that – perhaps in New England we'd say Bolton is out over his skis. He's pushing in a direction the president doesn't want to go. Mike Pompeo is also aggressive when it comes to Iran. By the way, Iran isn't Iraq. It's a big country. Two or three times as big. Much bigger economy. This is not one of the things where it would be a three-day series of air strikes. This is also difficult logistically to get troops there. Heaven forbid. This is a very different situation than Iraq. The concern is we are going to misinterpret something or they will and all of the sudden we are off into a very difficult conflict for us.

—May 16, 2019, on CNN “New Day”


QUESTION: Are you concerned that the latest actions by the Trump administration could lead the United States into a confrontation with Iran?

SENATOR KING: One of the difficulties over there [in Iraq] is that the Shia militia are a very powerful force within the country, and they are not fully in control of the government. Interestingly, when I was there one of the things that we learned was that there are elements within the militias who don’t like Americans and might want to cause us harm. The Iranians were actually holding them back; the word from Iran was they were not to attack Americans. So the danger now with this heightened level of tension is that if Iran rescinds that restraining order, that could be dangerous for our troops.

QUESTION: Have you been briefed by the administration or the Pentagon on the threat?

SENATOR KING: No, I haven’t had a briefing, but I have read the intelligence. I’m not going to share what they say, but I will share a concern, and that is that the tensions are so high with our withdrawal from the [Iran nuclear deal], the characterization of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] as a terrorist organization, our increasing of sanctions and secondary sanctions, which will have severe effects on the Iranian economy, and then the movements of the carrier and the bombers. My concern is we look on those as a response to Iran’s malicious actions—which, by the way, are very real—but the danger is if they perceive them not as reactions to them but as provocative actions, they will then respond. Then we have an escalatory situation that could be very dangerous.

You can easily envision a scenario where some members of a few militias in Iraq fire on American troops, we then respond with some kind of military action, and Iran responds to that. It’s a very dangerous situation, and I am just uncomfortable that we may be moving toward a military confrontation that would be very harmful.

What I saw on the ground in Iraq and in meetings with Iraqi officials is it’s a tense situation. We need to be tough and assertive with Iran, but we also need to be calibrated, and we need to have some lines of communication to be sure that we don’t get into a confrontation accidentally.

QUESTION: What do you think of longtime Iran hawk Bolton’s stance on Tehran?

SENATOR KING: John Bolton’s style is confrontation. He made a speech in 2017 to a group of Iranian exiles that said “the only solution is regime change” and “in 2019 we are going to be celebrating in the streets of Tehran.” So he’s been pretty clear about his position, which adds somewhat to the concern that he may be guiding policy in such a way that confrontation becomes inevitable. That’s what’s concerning me.

—May 10, 2019, in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine


House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA)
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY)
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA)

Dear Secretary Pompeo:
We are deeply concerned by recent reporting that the 2019 State Department Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, which the State Department submitted to Congress on April 15, may have been the product of political appointees disregarding intelligence or distorting its meaning in order to potentially “lay the groundwork to justify military action” against countries mentioned in the report. These allegations underscore our concern that the Department has failed to meet its statutory obligations in the April 15 report to Congress. 
It is further reported that that attempts to politicize the U.S. Intelligence Community’s normally objective assessments of Iran and others’ adherence to international obligations led to intense disagreements within the Department and the interagency. Our nation knows all too well the perils of ignoring and ‘cherry-picking’ intelligence in foreign policy and national security decisions, as evidenced by a prior White House’s disregard of the intelligence community’s analysis on Iraq and its selective use of Iraq-related intelligence to justify the march to war in 2003.  


Congress has mandated that the Compliance Report be a factual, apolitical document, but this year’s unclassified report consists largely of hypotheticals or opinion. Given that this report addresses the gravest of issues—nuclear programs of countries like Russia, North Korea, and Iran—it is critical that it contain strictly factual information based on the best analysis of our intelligence community.  Unfortunately, in several crucial places, this is absent.  Worse, the failure to report accurately and in detail on these countries is compounded by the fact that the Trump Administration has not submitted reporting about the Iranian nuclear program under Section 135 of the International Atomic Energy Act, as mandated by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.[7]  Without clear, factual, and up-to-date information about the Iranian nuclear program, the executive branch is denying information to Congress needed to keep the American people safe. 

—May 16, 2019, in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo


Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)


“Again, I’m not cheering for this, I don’t want this to happen, but there is no way the president of the United States can ignore clear movements on the ground coupled with clear intelligence that indicates that Iran is moving towards, or has, in many cases, ordered strikes against U.S. personnel and U.S. interests in the region.”

“They [the Trump administration] are doing absolutely the right thing. And the question of whether or not there is an armed conflict, that is now in the hands of the IRGC, of General Soleimani, and ultimately of the ayatollah and of Iran.”

—May 14, 2019, in an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Alley”


Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)

“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.

“In the last few days, the United States has moved additional military forces to the region and has signaled a willingness to reposition tens of thousands more. Iran-backed Houthis have claimed credit for a recent attack against Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. And suspicions behind who attacked oil tankers moving through the Straits of Hormuz have fallen on Tehran.

“War isn’t necessary to solve a problem when both sides want a solution. I urge Secretary Pompeo to reach out to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who I know doesn’t want to see a conflict with the United States.

“We should do everything possible to prevent an unnecessary war, beginning with immediately reopening diplomatic channels and toning down the rhetoric.”

—May 15, 2019, in a statement

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY)

“I’m troubled the administration cannot actually say that you haven’t been given power. I can tell you explicitly that you have not been given power or authority to have war with Iran, and in any semblance of a sane world you have to come back and ask us.”

“I’m not arguing whether Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are terrorists. My argument is that you do not have the permission of Congress to go to war in Iran. If you want a war, you need to come to us. It is the way the Constitution was written. It needs to be clear here. This is an explicit question. Only Congress can declare war. You do not have our permission to go to war in Iran and that should be very explicit.”

—April 10, 2019, in comments directed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a Congressional budget hearing


Senator Chris Coons (D-DE)

“I will always fight to make sure the men and women of the U.S. armed forces serving in the Middle East and around the world have the resources and equipment that they need to protect and defend our interests and our values, but I am concerned this action may only add to the escalatory cycle in the region.

“I urge the administration to explore diplomatic channels to de-escalate the security situation and do everything possible to avoid military conflict. If our country has learned anything from the Iraq War, it is that wars of choice in the Middle East can lead to unexpected and unintended consequences.

“While the United States should not underestimate the threat Iran poses in the Middle East, we must avoid a situation in which we slide into a military confrontation with Iran without having clearly thought through whether the conflict is necessary and what its consequences and costs would be.”

—May 24, 2019, in a statement 

“Exactly why it's so important for the Administration to come forward and brief a broad group of senators who are able to question them is to force them to focus their strategy, to make key decisions. I think it is an open question whether or not the provocation is going one way or the other. This is a very small space and a real tinder box. The Strait of Hormuz and the area between Saudi Arabia, Iran – there are so many other players in this region. The war in Yemen has been so destructive and is essentially a proxy war between Iran and the Saudis already. We are already enmeshed in the conflict in Syria. I think it is critical that we play our hand here thoroughly, cautiously, carefully and recognizing that we face an enormous challenge from China and a real and sustained challenge from Russia. If we were to get drawn into a war with Iran, the consequences for our global position would be, I think, tragic.”

—May 20, 2019, on CNN “New Day”


“There was both an '01 and an '02 authorization for the use of military force, and we have worked and worked to try and find bipartisan ground on an updated authorization for the wars we are currently in. And we have a real problem in the Senate, in that even on the Foreign Relations Committee, we've got some folks who don't want to give any authorization to President Trump and others who want an authorization with no restrictions. It is frankly unconscionable that the Senate has ceded so much of its power to determine when, where, and how we go to war, and I'm gravely concerned that I and most other Democrats, most importantly the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, have requested classified briefings so that we can get up to speed on the President's strategy, and what the intelligence is that would justify mobilizing for such a remarkable conflict in the Middle East and we have not gotten that briefing yet.”

“If we have a President who abruptly decided to withdraw our troops from Syria on a call with the president of Turkey, and is now equally abruptly planning to deploy 120,000 troops back into the region, my core question is: "What's our strategy?"

“We don't have a Secretary of Defense who's a decorated 4-star Marine Corps general with decades of military leadership experience, and we don't have a National Security Advisor with comparable, significant, national security leadership experience. The President did benefit from such a team in his first couple of years, and he did not launch any major new wars. I'm gravely concerned that we've got folks who are encouraging or tolerating his bumbling forward into a major deployment into the Middle East, without a clear strategy.”

“I think we should be significantly concerned, because if we know one thing about President Trump, it's that he's an unconventional President. He is our first President with no prior military or elected leadership experience, and he has now a history of taking conflicts and ramping them up very quickly, and then sometimes ramping them right back down equally quickly.”

—May 14, 2019, in an interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”


Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) Ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee

I am “convinced that the information and warnings that we have collected are of greater concern than the normal Iranian harassment activity that we’ve seen in the Persian Gulf and surrounding areas.”

“I don’t think it’s business as usual. It is cause for greater concern.” 

“If we’re attacked, I expect our military forces will be in a position to respond, to being attacked.”

“If Americans are attacked, then I think the president has authority to respond to those attacks.”

—May 16, 2019, in remarks to reporters

Senator Tom Udall (D-NM)


“I hope and pray that all U.S. troops and personnel overseas stay safe, and am confident we will strongly defend ourselves if attacked anywhere. But the current tensions are a direct result of the Trump administration’s failed Iran policy—withdrawing from the nuclear deal, ratcheting up sanctions, designating part of their military as terrorist, selective intelligence leaks, and saber-rattling rhetoric, all of which seem designed to spark conflict, not resolve differences through diplomacy. It is apparent that some influential voices within the Trump administration would welcome a military conflict with Iran and are provoking it, but the Constitution says they must seek approval from Congress first. Those who learned the lessons of Iraq cannot allow such a debacle to happen again. The time to speak out and take action to prevent an unnecessary and unauthorized war is now—not after a conflict starts.”

—May 9, 2019, in a press release


Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)


Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)


Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY)

“I am calling on acting Defense Secretary [Patrick] Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. [Joseph] Dunford to come testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee in an open setting before the end of the week.”

“The hearings that are done in secret do not inform the American people of what's going on, and they are entitled to know. Because the lessons of history teach us that when thing are done in secret, behind closed doors, mistakes can be made and momentum built for a course of action that the nation ultimately regrets.”

“[I]f the president and Republicans in Congress are planning to take the United States into a conflict, even a war in the Middle East, the American people deserve to know that and they deserve to know why.”

—May 15, 2019, on the Senate floor


Speaker of the House of Representatives Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)

“The responsibility in the Constitution is for Congress to declare war. So I hope that the president's advisers recognize they have no authorization to go forward in any way.”

“They cannot call the authorization, AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force that was passed in 2001, as any authorization to go forward in the Middle East now.”

—May 16, 2019, in remarks to the press

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH)


Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT)

“It’s close to inconceivable that the president, the administration would consider a war with Iran. The president made it clear when he ran for president that one of the worst foreign policy mistakes in American history was the decision to go to war with Iraq.”

—May 15, 2019, in remarks to the press


Senator Ed Markey (D-MA)


Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE)

"The Trump Administration is right to be making it very clear to Iran that these provocations don't lead anywhere good. General Soleimani is an evil bastard, but he’s not an idiot. He knows the U.S. military is able to bring his IRGC butchers to their knees if Americans are targeted. He should rethink his recent provocative moves."

—May 9, 2019, in a press release


Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)


Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC)


“We’re clearly moving people [out of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad]. This is a big deal. We had people there during the height of the war. I was there a bunch of times getting rocketed. If we could stay in operation then, it must be some kind of real threat [now].”

—May 15, 2019, in remarks to the press

“I think all of us are in the dark over here.”

—May 14, 2019, in remarks to the press outside the Senate


Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ)


“If Iran is responsible for targeted attacks on our service members stationed around the region or any of our national security assets, we should of course respond appropriately and in a way that deters and prevents further assaults. But it is hard to justify the administration’s actions thus far since they insist on stonewalling Congress from receiving any specifics about what these increased threats actually are and our strategy to confront them.”

—May 14, 2019, in remarks to the press outside the Senate


Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)


House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA)


Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)


Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, one of the actions they took this week was evacuating, as you know, our diplomatic posts in Iraq because they were concerned, based on the intelligence, that Iran may be looking to strike U.S. interests. You don’t buy it?

TULSI GABBARD: I don’t. You know, we heard conflicting stories coming from the British commander who is the co-commander of the fight against ISIS and Al-Qaeda there in Iraq and Syria saying, hey, he hadn’t seen an escalation of tensions or threats coming from these Iraqi – or these Shia militias serving in Iraq. I think what we’re seeing, unfortunately, is what looks a lot like people in the Trump administration trying to create a pretext or an excuse for us to go to war against Iran, a war that would actually undermine our national security, cost us countless American lives, cost civilian lives across the region, exacerbate the refugee crisis in Europe, and it would actually make us less safe by strengthening terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

—May 19, 2019, in an interview on ABC’s “This Week”

Representative Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), House Armed Services Committee Member 

“Today I received my second intelligence briefing on Iran in the past week, along with many of my House colleagues. 

“Much like the first briefing on the threat that I received on Friday, nothing in the intelligence that I received today indicates that the Administration would be justified in starting a war with Iran. 

“I strongly caution my colleagues in Congress to exercise restraint and look at this information with a discerning eye. The current military threat from Iran is real, but it is being irresponsibly exaggerated by people like John Bolton, Senator Cotton, and Senator Graham in order to advance their policy goal of a military confrontation.  

“War with Iran is not in our best interests, and force is not our only option. Instead, we should respond proportionately to any and all Iranian threats, as we do on a government-wide basis every single day. We should isolate Iran and punish its leaders for their transgressions, working with allies and partners to keep sanctions tight and diplomatic pressure high. 

“We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past by blindly accepting a false narrative pushed by men who have long lobbied publicly and privately for military escalation against Iran. Escalation in this scenario would be a grave mistake.” 

—May 21, 2019, in a statement 


House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD)

“Iran continues to be a malign actor in its region and around the world, sowing instability in Syria and Yemen, positioning forces across Israel’s northern border, supporting violent terrorism, and threatening the United States and our allies.  That is why our approach to Iran historically has been one of careful and strategic actions designed to protect U.S. interests, promote stability in the region, and work with the international community to limit Iran’s ability to threaten others. In that vein, I continue to be deeply concerned by this Administration’s lack of any clear strategy with regard to Iran, particularly in the aftermath of its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and its designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization.

“Now we are seeing the consequences of the Administration’s lack of strategy, with tensions escalating in recent days in direct response to recent Administration-directed actions.  Congress must be briefed in full on any new actions Iran has taken to threaten the United States or its allies, why escalating steps are being taken and what responses from Iran are anticipated, what new strategy is being implemented, and what goals it hopes to achieve.  Congress has a responsibility to the American people to ensure that our country is not again pushed into a military conflict without clear cause to risk the lives and safety of our service-members and our security.”

—May 8, 2019, in a statement

John Caves, a research assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, contributed to this roundup.