Is the Trump administration gearing up for a war with Iran?
This question has been percolating for months. It surfaced after the Trump administration moved the United States in May 2018 out of the nuclear deal that President Obama struck with Tehran, and again this year as the administration spoke of new, recent tensions.
Notably, in recent weeks, the White House appears to be tailoring its case for an intervention so that it would fit within the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress one week after 9/11.
That AUMF gave the executive branch broad authority to use force against countries, groups, and people that “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the [9/11] terrorist attacks… or harbored such organizations or persons.” Since then, the executive branch has used it to take military action in a number of countries without first coming to Congress for permission.
This is something we’re watching closely. Here are five key points:
1. Hawks In The Trump Administration Appear To Be Attempting To Squeeze An Iran Intervention Into The 9/11 AUMF
This has been a growing concern for those opposed to an intervention in Iran. One example of a potential administration effort to lay the groundwork for using the AUMF was its April 2019 decision to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.
ABC reported that the move led some in Congress to grow suspicious that the Trump administration was building a legal case for war with Iran, in part because of a simultaneous effort by the White House to tie Iran to Al Qaeda (More on that in a minute).
By designating Iran as home to one terrorist group, and supportive of another, critics warn, the administration may be laying the groundwork for continuing the nearly twenty year-old “War on Terror” in a new country.
2. The Effort To Link Iran And Al-Qaeda
The administration has put out numerous public statements attempting to link Iran to Al-Qaeda with no evidence to back up such a relationship.
When Trump announced the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal that President Obama negotiated, he cited Iran’s support for “terrorist proxies and militias such as… Al Qaeda” as a reason for abandoning the 2015 agreement.
The Washington Times, a right-leaning D.C.-based news outlet, reported in February that Iran and Al-Qaeda had formed an “alliance,” potentially providing a “legal rationale” for military force. The story quoted a top State Department official as saying that “since 9/11, the Iranian regime has given sanctuary to senior AQ members, and it remains unwilling to bring these terrorists to justice.”
At an April Senate hearing, Pompeo wound up in a notable exchange with the intervention-wary Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Pompeo told Paul that “there is no doubt there is a connection” between Iran and Al-Qaeda during an exchange with the senator.
Yet Trump officials have not provided any evidence to date to back up their assertion of the link, while numerous reports have discredited the notion of an “alliance” between the two. Relying on congressional sources, the Daily Beast reported last month that a representative of the U.S. intelligence committee told lawmakers in a closed hearing that no evidence had yet been found to suggest that Iran was cooperating with Al Qaeda in the Persian Gulf.
White House officials have not explicitly stated that their gambit is to tie Iran to Al Qaeda, thereby fitting an intervention against Tehran into the 2001 AUMF. Instead, they appear to be making the case that such a link exists while retaining plausible deniability that they are not making a case for war.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) offered an example of this dynamic during a late-night June 12 markup of the 2020 Defense Authorization Act, first flagged by Win Without War communications director Benjamin Armbruster.
There, Slotkin alluded to a briefing that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apparently gave to lawmakers on the issue.
“[Pompeo] did not say ‘I want to go to Iran and I’m going to use 2001,'” Slotkin recalled.
Rather, Slotkin said, Pompeo “referenced a relationship between Iran and Al-Qaeda.”
“Once he opened that door, he asked for an answer,” Slotkin concluded.
3. But Let’s Not Rule Out Using The AUMF
In the same April exchange with Rand Paul, Pompeo refused to rule out that the AUMF could be used.
Paul asked Pompeo to state for the record that the Trump administration would not invoke the 2001 AUMF for any attack on Iran.
“Do you believe that the 2001 authorization to go to war with those who attacked us on 9/11 applies to Iran or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard?” Paul asked.
The top U.S. diplomat replied that he would “prefer to just leave that to lawyers.”
4. Congress Pushes Back
Rand Paul has been the most outspoken Republican on the topic. At the same hearing, Paul stated: “I can tell you explicitly, you have not been given power or authority by Congress to have war with Iran.”
House Democrats, meanwhile, have tried in various ways to prevent the administration from potentially using the 2001 AUMF.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) submitted an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act that would have prevented the administration from using the 2001 AUMF as legal grounds for war with Iran.
Khanna pulled the proposal on June 13, after an interesting late-night exchange during markup on the bill.
During the exchange, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) claimed that “there’s no one from the administration that said they would” use the 2001 AUMF as grounds to attack Iran.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) then contradicted Turner, hedging his language but saying that Turner’s statement “is not consistent with my understanding of what they said to us.”
A little later, Rep. Slotkin then provided a more maximalist interpretation of Pompeo’s briefing to Congress.
“We were absolutely presented with a full formal presentation on how the 2001 AUMF might authorize war on Iran,” she said.
“Secretary Pompeo said it with his own words,” she added, before recounting how Pompeo “opened the door” by referencing Al Qaeda.
5. How The AUMF Has Already Been Stretched
Congress initially passed the AUMF with the Taliban in mind. The group was known to have harbored Osama bin Laden while providing a base for Al-Qaeda to plot the September 11 attacks.
But since then, the AUMF has been stretched to cover a range of military actions that have been taken since 9/11.
With each new deployment, members of Congress have raised the question whether their branch had ceded its authority to authorize the use of military force to the executive branch through an overly broad interpretation of the 18-year-old AUMF.