Lawmakers Move to Restrain Bush on Iran

Increasingly concerned about the escalating rhetoric against Iran by senior U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, members of Congress are trying to put limits on his ability to attack the Islamic Republic.

Their efforts so far have primarily taken the form of what one lobbyist refers to as "Resoliferation" – that is, the proliferation of a number of mostly nonbinding resolutions – in both the House of Representatives and Senate asserting that Bush must seek Congress’s approval before any attack on Iran or any of Iraq’s other neighbors.

The latest resolution, introduced Wednesday by a group of five House Democrats, declares that it is the policy of the United States not to enter into a preemptive war with Iran and bans the expenditure of Congressionally appropriated funds for covert actions designed to achieve regime change or to carry out any military actions against Tehran in the absence of an imminent threat.

Several influential senators have also posed pointed questions to the administration about whether it believes it has the constitutional authority to carry out military action against Iran without Congress’s approval.

"Is it the position of this administration that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran, in the absence of a direct threat, without Congressional approval?" asked the newly elected Virginia Democrat, James Webb during testimony by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Jan. 11. Rice said she would have to respond later.

Webb, who achieved overnight stardom last week when he delivered a remarkably tough Democratic response to Bush’s State of the Union address, reiterated his question in a pointed letter to Rice that gained him additional notice earlier this week. "This is, basically, a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question regarding an urgent matter affecting our nation’s foreign policy," he wrote.

Indeed, the fact that the administration has not yet issued any formal response to questions such as that posed by Webb has stoked fears on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that the White House believes not only that the answer is indeed "yes," but also that it is planning to attack Iran sooner rather than later.

Adding to those fears this week was a battery of new charges, especially by senior military officers, that Tehran is supplying Iraqi Shi’ite militias with weapons ranging from deadly, armor-piercing "explosively formed projectiles" (EFPs) to Katyusha rockets of the kind used by Lebanon’s Hezbollah against Israel in last summer’s month-long war but which have yet to be seen in use in Iraq.

In addition, U.S. officials have suggested that Iranians were behind a sophisticated attack Jan. 20 on a government compound in Karbala in which one U.S. soldier was killed and four others abducted and subsequently slain.

The incident, which is still under investigation, stirred speculation that it may have been carried out in retaliation for the seizure of a number of Iranian diplomats and security officials in two high-profile raids by U.S. forces over the past five weeks. Five of the Iranians are still being held.

"We have picked up individuals who we believe are giving very sophisticated explosive technology to Shi’ite insurgent groups, who then use that technology to target and kill American soldiers," said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns Thursday in an interview with National Public Radio.

"It’s a very serious situation. And the message is, Iran should cease and desist," added Burns, who, clearly conscious of the growing concern about the administration’s intentions, repeatedly insisted that Washington has no intention of attacking Iran in retaliation.

"We don’t intend to cross the border into Iran, we don’t intend to strike into Iran, in terms of what we are doing in Iraq," he said, conspicuously leaving open the possibility that Washington might yet attack Iran for other reasons, such as Bush’s longstanding warning that "all options are on the table" regarding Tehran’s nuclear program.

Some observers here have long believed that, in the absence of a diplomatic solution to U.S. demands that Iran freeze its uranium-enrichment program., Bush intends to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities before the end of his term. However, Congressional concern rose sharply with the president’s speech on Iraq strategy Jan. 10.

In that speech, Bush accused both Iran and Syria with granting safe passage in and out of Iraq to "terrorists and insurgents" and accused Iran, in particular, of "providing material support for attacks on American troops." In response, he announced the deployment of a second aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf and pledged to "destroy the network providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."

His remarks came just hours after U.S. forces seized Iranian officials, who have still not be released, in a raid on the Iranian consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil.

The reaction on Capitol Hill was virtually instantaneous. "When you set in motion the kind of policy that the president is talking about here, it’s very, very dangerous," Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel told Rice the following day during the same hearing in which Webb asked her whether the administration thought it had the authority to attack Iraq, a question also raised by the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden.

Since then, and despite the rising tide of charges by administration and military officials regarding Tehran’s alleged support for Shi’ite militias, the clerk of Congress has received a growing number of resolutions to steer the administration toward a less confrontational course.

On Jan. 16, Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio introduced a resolution with 18 Democratic cosponsors, including the powerful chairman of the House subcommittee for defense appropriations Rep. John Murtha, declaring that Bush lacked the authority to take military action against Iran without Congressional approval. Biden has since said he will introduce a similar measure in the Senate.

On Jan. 18, another bipartisan group, including Murtha and Republican Rep. Walter Jones, submitted a second resolution demanding that the president seek congressional authorization before initiating the use of force against Iran absent a "demonstrably imminent attack by Iran" on the U.S. or its armed forces.

That was followed several days later by another, also signed by Murtha, as well as eight other congressmen, that expressed the sense of Congress that Bush should implement a recommendation – explicitly rejected by Bush – by the Iraq Study Group headed by former secretary of state James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton that Washington "engage directly with Iran and Syria" in trying to stabilize Iraq.

On Jan. 24, Sen. Robert Byrd, the Senate’s the longest-serving member, introduced another "sense of the Senate" resolution on the need for Congressional approval for any offensive military action against another nation, a position that was explicitly endorsed in respect to Iran last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

While all of these resolutions are either nonbinding or include provisions that could be easily ignored or circumvented by a White House administration determined go to war and willing to stage a provocation to do so, lobby groups and activists on both the left and the right say they hope they will serve as a "shot across the bow" of administration hawks.

"Its about time Congress focuses attention on this issue and tries to take back its constitutional right to declare war and not simply write a blank check to the president," according to Carah Ong, an Iran specialist at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, who is coordinating antiwar efforts by some 50 groups across the political spectrum.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.