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Congress is Making it Easier to Go to War with Iran

March 27, 2013

Last week marked one decade since the invasion of Iraq, a time for sober reflection. Do we understand the folly of wars of choice, or could we make the same mistake? A bill moving in the Senate that makes war with Iran more likely reveals that Congress may not have learned the lessons of Iraq.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who voted against war in Iraq, has joined 76 senators in co-sponsoring a bill that would put the Senate on record urging military, diplomatic and economic support if Israel were to decide to attack Iran. (As of this writing, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has not co-sponsored the bill.) This bill is the most egregious in a string of congressional actions that could form the building blocks for a war that could make Iraq look like a walk in the park.

History teaches us that the run-up to war is often not one dramatic event, but a slow burn that suddenly turns into a blazing fire. History is now repeating itself on Capitol Hill.

Congress has already quietly lowered the threshold for war with Iran. Last year, the House and Senate voted to move the red line for military action to Iran's achieving an ill-defined nuclear capability as opposed to the administration's stated line of an actual weapon. That bill did not define "nuclear capability," vague terminology that could apply to any number of countries with nuclear energy programs.

The bill before the Senate this year endorses a potential future military attack, an unusual step for Congress. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a lead sponsor of the bill with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., made chilling comments about the legislation to Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post: On his Iran resolutions, Graham favors a step-by-step approach. You have to build a case, he explained: First, you rule out containment, then pledge support to Israel, and if that doesn't work, tell President Obama: Mr. President, here's authorization.

Some supporters argue that the nonbinding nature of the language should assuage any concern. Would their outlook be so sanguine if the government of Iran pledged support for an attack on the United States? A statement from the Senate has power, and senators know it.

Congress' escalating steps create a troubling pattern. Military leaders have been clear that an attack on Iran would be a disaster. Escalating confrontation is the likely result, along with a compelling motivation for the Iranian regime to develop a nuclear weapon -- a decision U.S. intelligence argues Iran has yet to make.

Facing this reality, we doubt the Obama administration wants war with Iran. But we fear that Congress' ramping up of pressure and undermining diplomacy will box out other options.

The United States and its partners are making tentative progress in negotiations with Iran, but continued progress requires at least a modicum of trust, which is hard to come by given the long history of tensions. A pledge of support for military action on Iran by Congress blows that trust-building out of the water.

The Iranian people and their government often question the intentions of the United States, and their skepticism feels justified when our government speaks with two voices. Congress should abandon the misguided notion of serving as the administration's bad cop.

What will these 77 senators think when they look back at this bill in 10 years? The best-case scenario will be a pointless exercise in chest-beating that did little to resolve tensions with Iran. The worst-case scenario is a step that laid the groundwork for another disastrous war. Congress, including Sens. Merkley and Wyden, needs to put the brakes on this counterproductive legislation. 

Rebecca Griffin is political director of Peace Action West. She traveled to Iran in May 2009 with a people-to-people diplomacy delegation. Kelly Campbell is executive director of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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