Mr. President, I rise today to discuss my concerns with respect to Iran and to express my support for the Kaine resolution, of which I am a cosponsor. No American mourns the death of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, and my thoughts remain with the servicemembers who were injured by Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missile attacks in Iraq.
The President was wrong to diminish their wounds by referring to them as ‘‘headaches.’’ Traumatic brain injuries are serious, and the President’s comments undermine efforts to educate our military personnel about their potentially lasting consequences. Unfortunately, the President still does not seem to grasp that his words and actions have real consequences.
Tensions with Iran and the potential for miscalculation remain exceptionally high. We are likely in a period of calm before the storm. No serious analyst doubts there will be a future Iranian violent reaction to the death of Soleimani and continued pressure by the United States. This temporary calm is the result of several factors. First, Soleimani’s death has caused a disruption in the command and control of the IRGC Quds Force. He is not irreplaceable, but he is very difficult to replace. Second, Iran’s principle objective in Iraq is to expel the United States, to get them to leave Iraq.
The killing of Soleimani has given Iran political leverage it did not imagine, and violence at this time could dissipate that advantage, especially as Iraqi political leadership remains in flux. Finally, the tragic downing of the Ukrainian airliner swiftly reversed an outpouring of nationalistic ardor in Iran, with renewed criticism of the Ayatollah.
Again, Iranian violence in Iraq or elsewhere at this time could exacerbate internal opposition. The Iranians are likely to continue to act via proxies. For example, Iranian-backed Shia militia in Iraq have signaled their intent to avenge the death of Popular Mobilization Forces Deputy Commander Muhandis, who was killed along with Soleimani.
Our national security interests related to Iran, Iraq, and the counterISIS campaign are on a negative trajectory because of the administration’s policies and the impulsive decision making we have seen. Since coming into office, the Trump administration has waged a maximum pressure campaign against Iran that has included crippling sanctions, the unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and now the killing of Soleimani.
Secretary Pompeo and the President have stated that the goal of this campaign is allegedly to bring Iran to the negotiating table, but it instead has had the opposite effect of driving Iran so far into a corner that it now sees little downside to escalating and direct conflict with our country. In addition, the ripple effect of the so-called maximum pressure campaign has resulted in the following: the disruption of counterterrorism operations in Syria and Iraq to defeat ISIS; the direction from the Iraqi Parliament to remove U.S. troops from Iraq; the resumption of Iran’s nuclear program; and the growing diplomatic distance of the United States from our traditional allies and partners. That is not what anyone would call a win. It should be clear to all that these policies are not working.
The administration continues to let events in the region dictate our response rather than proactively and strategically shaping them, in collaboration with our allies and partners, in a way that benefits U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives. We should take the opportunity now to step back from the brink of conflict, engage in real diplomacy with Iran, and to rebuild our relationship with Iraq.
We need a diplomatic channel, either directly or through third parties, to avoid miscalculation on either side that could lead to military conflict. Such efforts in Iraq, however, have been made all the more difficult because of our reduced diplomatic presence in Baghdad. Indeed, according to the inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve, the State Department has indicated that—in his words—‘‘the ordered departure...has affected all operations of Mission Iraq, and has limited the Mission’s ability to help Iraq become a more resilient, independent, democratic country, and to support counter-ISIS efforts.’’ Unfortunately, the situation at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq is indicative of our country’s entire diplomatic structure, which has been hollowed out and hampered at every turn.
I am particularly concerned that Secretary Pompeo has not assumed the traditional role of the Secretary of State in advocating for diplomatic options but, instead, has been the loudest voice in the administration for violence and confrontation. Weaponizing diplomacy as the first step, rather than the last, is a sure path to diplomatic failure. War with Iran is not inevitable, but the risk that we stumble into conflict because of the President’s misguided policies has never been higher. As dictated by the Constitution, the decision to take the Nation to war rests solely with the Congress. The Kaine resolution is an important step in preserving the constitutional role of Congress in matters of national security. Some have argued that Congress should not debate the issues of hostilities with Iran. They claim that questioning the President’s policies means one is not an opponent of the Iranian regime. I wholeheartedly disagree. Before being sent to war, our troops deserve to know that the Nation has determined the objectives of the armed conflict to be valid and worthy of their potential sacrifice. Our military men and women deserve to know that they have a clear mission and that they have the full backing of not only the Congress but also the American people whom we represent.
The administration not only owes the American people a transparent explanation for escalating conflict with Iran but also a credible strategy to conclude hostilities, if they occur, and ensure an enduring peace. As we have painfully experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan over much of the last two decades, securing the peace is no easy task.
I am also deeply troubled by the evolving and, at times, contradictory justifications offered by the administration for the killing of Soleimani. Even in a highly classified briefing to Senators following the strike on Soleimani, the administration failed to provide relevant details. There is simply no justification for refusing to share intelligence with Congress that underpins the administration’s assessment that Soleimani posed an ‘‘imminent threat’’ to Americans in the region. Determining imminence requires a careful and thorough analysis of both the immediate intent and the immediate capabilities of the enemy. The administration has not provided a sufficient response to the Senate on either point. The President has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness not just to bend the facts but to indulge in outright fabrications. This behavior is particularly concerning and unacceptable when it may result in the deployment of troops into harm’s way. Congress has a responsibility to demand and, if necessary, challenge the basis for assertions that could be used to take this country to war.
We must not repeat the mistakes that led us to war in Iraq in 2003. I voted against that conflict, in part because I believed it was an unnecessary war of choice and the Bush administration had not provided the American people with a sober assessment of the likely costs or the nature of the threat. Going to war in Iraq took our focus off the priority effort to defeat alQaida and consolidate gains in Afghanistan, a decision that has contributed to our inability to secure the country in the years since. Once again, we are risking an avoidable conflict in the Middle East at the expense of our efforts to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS and to place increased emphasis on the great power competition with China and Russia, in line with the National Defense Strategy.
Conflict with Iran is not a hypothetical proposition given the steadily escalating cycle of violence we have witnessed over the past 2 years, which has ultimately led to the outbreak of conventional military action between the United States and Iran involving the killing of Soleimani and Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missile strikes in Iraq. Iran has also announced that it will no longer comply with constraints placed on its nuclear program by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA, likely resulting in a reduction of the so-called ‘‘breakout’’ timeline for Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, President Trump has declared repeatedly that he will not allow Iran to acquire such a weapon.
Absent capitulation by Iran or a change in course by the administration, the President appears to be creating a situation wherein his only option is military action when it comes to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. However, we have received no assurances that this administration would consult with Congress and seek authorization in advance if it believed it needed to take such military action. Congress cannot stand idly by as the President careens toward possible conflict.
The potential of conflict with Iran has already upended the priorities outlined in the President’s own National Defense Strategy, led to the deployment of nearly 20,000 U.S. troops to the region in the last year, disrupted our operations against ISIS, and made Americans less safe. The administration’s ill-conceived approach has not worked, and the time has come to try real and sustained diplomacy rather than relying on blind faith in the power of coercion.
I urge the President to change course and engage with our allies and partners with the goal of seeking a diplomatic solution to the current situation immediately. I yield the floor.