Lawmakers caution against unilateral strike on Iran

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in the United Arab Emirates, Sept. 19, 2019. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/Pool, Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration Wednesday that the weekend attacks on Saudi oil facilities represent “an act of war” by the regime in Tehran, the appetite in Washington for a military conflict with Iran appears limited.

Two days after President Trump said that he would “like to avoid” war with Iran, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday that the United States should not strike Iran in response to recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, and that it would need a new congressional authorization to do so.

“There is no legal justification for the use of U.S. military force in defense of Saudi Arabia,” Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state told an audience in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican and fellow Armed Services Committee member, concurred. “We do not have a mutual defense pact with Saudi Arabia,” Waltz told an audience at the centrist think tank New America. Therefore, the Trump administration would need to seek authorization “for a unilateral American response unless American interests were directly attacked,” he said.

But Waltz disagreed with the other Democratic representative on the panel, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, when it came to the effectiveness of the Trump administration’s strategy with regard to Iran. After withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran agreed to by the administration of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, Trump has imposed a series of financial sanctions on Iran.

Those sanctions are having an effect, according to Waltz, who said that Iran’s oil exports have fallen “from two-and-a-half million barrels per day to ... less than 200,000,” which he described as “a significant blow to the regime.”

The militias that Iran supports around the Middle East are feeling the pinch, said Waltz. “Hamas, Hezbollah, the Shi’a proxies in Iraq are having a hard time making payroll,” he said. “So my message to the president is, ‘Mr. President, keep up the pressure campaign, it is working.’”

But Moulton argued forcefully that Trump’s approach was backfiring. Pulling out of the nuclear deal has not deterred the Iranians from seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, he said. “In fact, they’ve been put into a corner where they’ve said this is the only thing we can do now,” said Moulton, who is also on the Armed Services Committee.

Moulton, who served four tours in Iraq as a Marine Corps officer, also argued that Trump’s policies have failed to alter Iran’s behavior in the region. It “has gotten worse,” he said. “They did not attack any Americans when they were under the deal. Now they’re back to the situation we were [in] several years ago when I was in Iraq, where they are attacking Americans, killing our allies.”

The Nahr Bin Umar oil field near Basra, Iraq. (Photo: Essam Al-Sudani/Reuters)

An unstated Trump administration goal for Iran is regime change, Moulton charged. But while the administration’s policies might force Iran’s current government from office, he said, it is unlikely to result in an Iranian regime more palatable to the United States. “We’re more than likely going to get a worse, a more adversarial regime, because those are exactly the constituencies in Iran we’re empowering,” he said.

Waltz predicted that gaining relief from the sanctions is the Iranians’ “strategic goal,” and that they would continue to escalate the confrontation in the Gulf “until stopped.”

The U.S. government has not confirmed that the Sept. 14 drone and missile attacks on the Saudi oil facilities originated in Iran, which has denied responsibility. Yemen’s Houthi rebels, which Iran supports, have said they carried out the attack, but there is widespread skepticism that the Houthis have the expertise to conduct such sophisticated attacks alone.

That ambiguity is just what Iran aims for, according to Waltz. “This is where the Iranians are so clever,” he said. “This is right out of their playbook in terms of escalating and having a strategic effect and causing an international crisis, but just under the level to where it elicits an absolute U.S. response.” Noting that the attacks neither hit any U.S. targets nor caused “massive casualties,” Waltz said the strikes represented “a brilliant move on their part because they knew in the West that we would be having this debate rather than eliciting a response.”

Waltz, a former Army Special Forces officer, said his preferred response to the attacks would be to respond “by, with and through our allies.” But Waltz nodded affirmatively when Smith said that Saudi Arabia was “problematic,” because of its poor human rights record and its history of fostering Sunni Islamist extremism.

Smith said he didn’t want the United States to appear to be too closely allied with the Saudis, and that the Sunni extremism that the United States has been fighting “came out of Saudi Arabia to begin with.”

The United States and Iran are engaged in a high-stakes contest of wills, according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, New America’s chief executive officer and a former senior foreign policy official in the Obama administration.

“We are playing a game of chicken with Iran,” she said, speaking at the same event. “This is Cuban missile crisis time.”

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