6/27/2019 — 

Mr. President, I rise today to discuss the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran and my concern about the Administration’s current approach – a path that I am worried will lead us to war – and my support for the Udall amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.  I believe that diplomatic efforts, in concert with our international partners, should be pursued immediately to avoid another unnecessary armed conflict in the Middle East.

Let me be clear, Iran is a dangerous and destabilizing force in the region.  It supports terrorist proxies and meddles in the internal affairs of other states.  Iran continues to pursue ballistic missile capabilities in violation of international norms and it abuses the rights of its people.  Unfortunately, the Administration’s chosen course of action with respect to Iran has isolated the United States from the international community and made it more difficult to collectively address these issues.

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.

Taking a step back, it is important to recount the actions that have precipitated the current state of affairs.  Current tensions are an entirely predictable outcome of the Administration’s ill-conceived approach to Iran.  Despite then-candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric, I and others hoped that he would heed the advice of his advisors with respect to the Iran nuclear agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  For example, despite personal concerns about the JCPOA before it was signed, former Secretary Mattis told the Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing that “When America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.''  In October 2017, Secretary Mattis told the Armed Services Committee that he believed it was in our national interest to remain in the JCPOA.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford echoed these statements at the time and cautioned that “the U.S. would incur damage vis-a-vis our allies if we unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA. Our allies will be less likely to cooperate with us on future military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and less likely to cooperate with us on countering other destabilizing aspects of Iranian behavior that threaten our collective interests.”

The Administration should have sought to work with the international community to address the challenges posed by Iran by building upon the foundation provided by the JCPOA rather than squandering that opportunity in favor of “putting Iran on notice” and other inflammatory rhetoric.  Just over a year ago, President Trump made the disastrous decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the JCPOA and re-impose nuclear-related sanctions in violation of previous U.S. commitments under the deal.  Since withdrawing from the deal, the Trump Administration has taken a series of additional escalatory actions, including the imposition of new sanctions on various aspects of the Iranian economy, cancellation of waivers that previously allowed importation of Iranian oil by China, India, Japan, South Korea and Turkey, and the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, often referred to as the IRGC, as a foreign terrorist organization.

The designation of a foreign government entity as a foreign terrorist organization was unprecedented and it is not clear what purpose it served, other than to unnecessarily raise tensions with Iran.  As I learned during a recent visit to Iraq and Afghanistan, the IRGC designation has significantly complicated our relationships with foreign partners who described the action as provocative and destabilizing.

While the JCPOA was not a perfect deal, it was a necessary deal.  It is important to remember that when the JCPOA was signed, Iran’s “breakout” timeline – or the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon – was only 2 to 3 months.  The JCPOA, even by the most conservative estimates, stretched that timeline to more than a year.

By all accounts, the JCPOA has worked as intended.  The JCPOA commits Iran to never seeking to develop or acquire a nuclear weapon and effectively cuts off all pathways for Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon until at least 2030.  The agreement dramatically reduced Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium and the number of installed centrifuges.  It also prevented Iran from producing weapons-grade plutonium and has subjected Iran to the most intrusive monitoring regime in the world to ensure it is living up to its commitments. 

The JCPOA was appropriately built upon the concept of “distrust and verify” and I support efforts by our European partners, and also Russia and China, to preserve the JCPOA despite challenges the Trump Administration has put in their way.  According to General Dunford, in the absence of the JCPOA, Iran would likely resume its nuclear weapons program and “a nuclear-armed Iran would likely be more aggressive in its actions and more dangerous in its consequences.”  Unfortunately, the Administration’s withdrawal from the agreement and re-imposition of sanctions has left us isolated from our allies and partners while emboldening the hardliners in Iran. 

In May of last year, subsequent to the decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, Secretary of State Pompeo articulated a set of 12 “demands” and indicated that “major changes” would need to be made by Iran before sanctions relief would be provided.  The Administration has sent mixed messages on whether its demands should be viewed as a set of preconditions for discussions on sanctions relief.  The demands outlined by Secretary Pompeo are widely viewed as maximalist and leave little room for negotiation, especially given that the Administration has already reneged on previous diplomatic commitments related to Iran’s nuclear program.  Without greater certainty by the Administration on what specific actions would need to be taken by Iran to relieve U.S. economic pressure, I fear that Iran has little incentive to engage in negotiations.

Indeed, the Administration has followed these initial set of 12 “demands” with a succession of orchestrated steps to force Iran into an ever-smaller corner that only serves to increase the odds of miscalculation and reduce diplomatic opportunities.  The economic sanctions by the United States have left the Iranian economy reeling with its gross domestic product shrinking by 5 percent and the inflation rate rising by 50 percent.  As part of this so-called “maximum pressure” campaign, the Administration has just announced personal sanctions against the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other Iranian leadership.  The Iranians have responded by indicating that these sanctions mean “the permanent closure of the doors of diplomacy.”

Rather than modifying its behavior, Iran has responded to these demands and subsequent escalatory actions by increasing its malign activities in the region, including in Yemen and Syria, and announcing that it would stop complying with certain aspects of the JCPOA.  If Iran follows through on threats to completely withdraw from the JCPOA and resume nuclear weapons development activities, the U.S. and international community will be in a much less unified and, therefore, weaker negotiating position than we had leading up the JCPOA. 

As I assess the current state of affairs, I see four potential outcomes of the current approach being pursued by the Administration.

First, Iran could bend to the will of the Administration and announce its compliance with the so-called 12 “demands” laid out by Secretary Pompeo.  However, Iran has a long history of struggle against outside forces, a notable example being the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.  Additionally, Iranian capitulation would likely threaten its top priority of regime survival – clearly an unrealistic proposition.

Second, Iran could remain in the JCPOA, despite seeing little of the economic benefits promised by the deal, and hope that a future U.S. Administration would return to the agreement.  Iran’s recent announcement that it would stop complying with aspects of the JCPOA is a signal that it views the current arrangement as unsustainable and is willing to abandon the JCPOA completely if its economic situation does not improve in the near term.

Third, Iran could agree to return to the negotiating table seeking a reduction in tensions and easing of sanctions.  However, both the Administration and Iranian leaders have made clear that they are not interested in such an approach.  In announcing the Administration’s strategy for Iran last May, Secretary Pompeo stated that President Trump is “is ready, willing, and able to negotiate a new deal” but also made clear that “we will not renegotiate the JCPOA itself.”  On May 8th, Iranian President Rouhani stated “We are ready to negotiate, within the boundaries of JCPOA…It is not us who has left the negotiation table.”  These seem to be irreconcilable positions, especially after the latest round of sanctions directed at the Iranian leadership.

Lastly, the current approach could result in a military conflict between the U.S. and Iran.  The destruction of an American unmanned drone flying in international airspace by a missile fired from Iran is an example of the potential for widespread conflict.  Only at the last minute did President Trump call off a strike against the Iranian missile sites in retaliation.  He concluded correctly that such a strike would be disproportionate.  But, the incident underscores the precarious position we are in after months of the misguided “maximum pressure” campaign.  Iranian action, either directed by national leadership or mistakenly taken by zealous subordinates, could put us on an escalatory ladder of strike and counterstrike that would involve the entire region from Afghanistan to the Levant.  In addition, and equally troubling, is that an unarticulated goal of this so-called “maximum pressure” campaign is to prompt Iran to leave the JCPOA either officially or by gradually increasing its stock of highly enriched uranium or other aspects of its nuclear program.  This could give advocates for a military strike on Iran increased leverage.  Again, such a strike, even targeted to nuclear facilities, would likely prompt a regional asymmetric response by Iran with significant military as well as economic consequences. 

Like all of my colleagues, I am deeply concerned about reported Iranian threats to U.S. personnel and facilities in the Middle East.  U.S. forces have the unquestioned and inherent right to defend themselves, but absent an Iranian directed or sponsored attack, or the imminent threat of such an attack, on U.S. personnel, facilities, or key strategic interests, military action should be pursued only as a last resort and as part of an international coalition, which the Administration has so far failed to bring together. 

I support the amendment offered by Senator Udall because it would make clear that any offensive military action against Iran must be consistent with domestic and international law, including a specific authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) provided by Congress.  

In this context, the President’s demonstrated willingness not just to bend the facts, but to indulge in fabrications, is particularly concerning and unacceptable when it may come to deploying our troops into harm’s way.  Congress has a responsibility to demand, and if necessary challenge, the basis for unsupported assertions of Iranian aggression and provocation that could be used to take this country to war.

Echoing one of the themes used in the Bush Administration’s justification for the 2003 Iraq War, Secretary of State Pompeo testified to the Senate in April that “there's no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Al Qaida. Period. Full stop” and refused to rule out the 2001 AUMF as a means to conduct military action against Iran.  While Iran is a state sponsor of terror, I am aware of no evidence to suggest Iran or Iranian affiliated groups are an “associate force” of al Qaeda for the purposes of the 2001 AUMF.  In fact, such an arrangement is hard to fathom given the deep religious and ideological differences between the Shia leadership of Iran and the Sunni leadership of al Qaeda.  The Administration must come to Congress if it seeks to pursue offensive military action.

Likewise, any consideration of military action against Iran must fully account for the likely cost of such an engagement – in lives, resources, potential negative impact on the global economy, disruption of U.S. bilateral relationships, and other unintended consequences.   The Administration must provide the American people with a clear-eyed assessment of what those costs may be in advance of any contemplated military engagement. 

The Trump Administration’s escalatory actions may soon place Iran in an untenable position.  As a result, Iran could seek to change the status quo by initiating a limited military conflict with the U.S., thereby requiring the intervention of the international community.  If such a scenario comes to pass, our recent efforts to deter Iran through the deployment of additional military capabilities to the region will have failed and even a limited conflict would be very difficult to manage or to bring to a conclusion.

The President and others in his Administration have consistently downplayed the potential costs of conflict with Iran.  In fact, just yesterday, the President said that “if something should happen [with Iran], we're in a very strong position, it wouldn't last very long.”  The President’s assessment is undercut by his own Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats who told Congress earlier this year that:  

“Iran continues to develop and improve a range of new military capabilities to target US and allied military assets in the region, including armed UAVs, ballistic missiles, advanced naval mines, unmanned explosive boats, submarines and advanced torpedoes, and antiship and land-attack cruise missiles. Iran has the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East and can strike targets up to 2,000 kilometers from Iran’s borders. Russia’s delivery of the SA-20c SAM system in 2016 has provided Iran with its most advanced long-range air defense system.”

In addition to the conventional military capabilities laid out by Director Coats, Iran maintains a network of proxy forces throughout the region – many of whom operate in close proximity to U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Syria – that maintain the capability to conduct lethal action against our forces and facilities without notice.  Recently retired Commander of U.S. Central Commend General Votel told the Armed Services Committee in February that:

“The Iranian regime masks its malign activities through proxies and surrogates enabled by the Iran Threat Network (ITN) in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Iran is also attempting to build ground lines of communication through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon to support its proxy Hezbollah. Iran has gained influence within Iraq’s armed forces with the formalization of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and also exerted influence in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, oftentimes affecting established sovereign governance.”

The combination of Iran’s known conventional and asymmetric capabilities should dispel any notion that conflict with Iran would be quick or could be won only through the use of U.S. air power.  As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly said in a recent speech, “If you think the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe.”  He continued, “[Iranian] capacity to wage a series of terror attacks across the Middle East aimed at us and our friends, and dramatically worsen the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere is hard to overestimate.”

All of the competent military analysts I have engaged with believe that we cannot conduct an effective land campaign in Iran and an extended air and sea campaign will undercut the priorities laid out in the National Defense Strategy, which focuses on Russia and China.  Absent the full mobilization of our armed forces and those of our allies, ground operations in Iran are simply beyond our capacity.  The last ground war involving Iran, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, resulted in the death of nearly 1 million troops – the majority of whom were Iranians that died fighting a superior Iraqi military during a brutal and prolonged conflict.  There is clearly no widespread U.S. or international support for another such military engagement in the Middle East.

Considering the costs associated with ground operations, a more limited conflict involving a series of “tit-for-tat” actions is far more likely – with Iran utilizing its asymmetric advantages and proxies in response to U.S. precision and stand-off strikes.  It is unlikely that U.S. deterrence could be quickly re-established under such a scenario and Iran may use the time to restart and advance its nuclear weapons efforts, thereby increasing its negotiating leverage and also making the situation much more volatile.

War with Iran is not inevitable.  To date, the Administration seems to have tried to use every instrument of national power to get Iran to change its behavior – except diplomacy and negotiations.  The Administration’s ill-conceived approach has not worked and the time has come to try real and sustained diplomacy, rather than relying on coercion.  I urge the President and those in the Administration to take this moment of high tension to engage with our allies and partners with the goal of seeking a diplomatic solution to the current situation. 

Mr. President, I yield the floor.