July 1, 2006  

United in relief

Rice’s offer to negotiate with Iran gets Congress off the hook

The sense of relief that washed over Capitol Hill in early June was unmistakable, propelled by news that President Bush, in what appeared to be a reversal of policy, favored bargaining over bombing to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The announcement came from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. After months of grim warnings, grave pronouncements and reports of preparation for pre-emptive airstrikes, the U.S. was willing to talk.

Even the president’s critics were pleasantly taken aback.

“I am very encouraged,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. “The climate has changed.”

DeFazio was about to launch a “major co-sponsor recruitment drive” for a resolution he introduced in April asserting that the president does not have the authority, even as commander in chief, to attack Iran without first getting permission from Congress. “I’m hoping that has been eclipsed by events,” DeFazio said in early June.

For a bunch devoted to divisive rhetoric on matters ranging from the war in Iraq to immigration, Congress has been bizarrely bipartisan on the matter of Iran. On April 26, House lawmakers voted 397-21 in support of the Iran Freedom Support Act, a bill that seeks to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons by imposing tough international economic sanctions. The bill also endorses regime change as a U.S. goal for Iran. The 21 opponents fear that economic sanctions won’t force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but lack of success with sanctions will prompt the U.S. to take more aggressive steps, leading ultimately to military action. Even the White House expressed concern that the bill could stand in the way if the administration tried to negotiate with Iran.

The problem with Iran is that there are no attractive options. Diplomacy seems unlikely to result in a non-nuclear Iran. But military action has the potential to make the situation worse. An attack on Iran would surely destabilize the Middle East, prompt Iran to unleash droves of terrorists and push the price of oil to more than $100 a barrel — and still not prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, said P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel and former spokesman for the National Security Council.

Throughout the spring, DeFazio said, he grew increasingly alarmed that the Bush administration appeared to be planning unilateral, pre-emptive military strikes against Iran. He was also concerned that many of his colleagues in Congress seemed unwilling to push the administration back.

“I was not feeling a sense of urgency” on Capitol Hill, DeFazio said.

An Air Force veteran, DeFazio has spent his 20 years in Congress more focused on trade, timber issues and consumer affairs than on defense and foreign policy. It was clear to him back home in Oregon and around the country that voters were not buying the idea of war with Iran.

“The American people are not in the mood for another go-it-alone cowboy intervention,” DeFazio said. “The last thing we need is another Iraq.”

So on April 13, DeFazio sent a letter to the White House reminding Bush that the Constitution assigns Congress alone the responsibility to raise armies, maintain a navy and declare war. DeFazio challenged the administration’s interpretation that the Constitution’s commander-in-chief clause gives the president authority to send U.S. military forces into action without congressional approval.

“We want to be clear, should you decide that force is necessary, seeking congressional authority prior to taking military action against Iran is not discretionary. It is legally and constitutionally necessary,” DeFazio wrote.

More than 60 House members, including two Republicans, also signed his letter. Yet two weeks later, most of the same people voted for the Iran Freedom Support Act. DeFazio voted against it.

So did Rep. Jim Leach, a moderate Republican from Iowa. It would be “bad for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, but there are things that are worse,” Leach said in an address to the House. “One of the things that would be worse is to give them reason to use that nuclear weapon.”

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who also opposed the Iran Freedom Support Act, asked, “What have we learned from three years in Iraq? With plans now being laid for regime change in Iran, it appears we have learned absolutely nothing.” Paul said the bill was uncomfortably similar to a 1998 resolution that called for regime change in Iraq. That, he said, was the first step to the “very unpopular, expensive” Iraq war.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, called the act “a stepping stone to the use of force.” He asked, “Don’t we have enough problems in Iraq to clean up before setting the stage for another conflict with Iran?”

All to no avail.

The lopsided vote prompted Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to complain that even House Democrats “are now trying to get to the right of the administration” by talking tough on Iran.

It wasn’t just happening in the House. In a May 19 letter, Senate Democrats urged Bush to “avoid repeating mistakes made in the run-up to the conflict in Iraq” by providing “untainted” intelligence analysis of Iran’s nuclear program. Led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Democrats called for the U.S. “to energetically pursue a diplomatic solution.”

The Democrats felt compelled to add, “The international community must not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.” But other than calling for “a comprehensive debate in the Congress about the best short- and long-term approaches” to the problem, they didn’t suggest how Iran might be stopped.

In remarks June 10, Reid blamed the Bush administration for letting the Iraq problem get worse but vowed not to be “manipulated” into military action by the administration.

With four months to go before elections, lawmakers are uncertain what to do about Iran.

“I don’t think anyone wants a military option,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. “Congress is resolute in both parties that Iran must not be allowed to pursue a nuclear weapon,” but lawmakers are not ready yet to vote for military action, he said. Persuading them to do so now “would be very difficult.”

“There is more caution now than there was leading up to the October 2002 vote” in which Congress gave President Bush permission to use military force against Iraq, a Democratic House aide said. That’s not surprising. Politicians tend to reflect their constituents, and when they return home to run for re-election, another Democratic staffer said, members are hearing from a lot voters the same thing DeFazio said: “We don’t need another Iraq.”

“I don’t think there is anybody who is particularly thrilled at taking a hawkish attitude toward Iran at this point,” a Republican staffer agreed. “The Iraq experience has not gone down well.”

Squeezed among unhappy voters, war or a nuclear-armed Iran, it’s no wonder lawmakers were elated May 31 when the secretary of state announced a fourth option: negotiations.

“I am pleased to see the administration is finally changing its strategy for dealing with the nuclear situation,” said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo.

Rice’s announcement “marks an important step forward and a reversal of the Bush administration’s reluctance to engage with Iran,” said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.

“Talking is something we have done with virtually every other country on earth, including the Soviet Union during the Cold War and unsavory regimes like the ones in North Korea and Libya,” he said. “If this administration wants to convince our allies and others to place serious pressure on Iran, it must walk the extra diplomatic mile.”

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing June 8, however, two Iran experts offered fairly gloomy predictions about the usefulness of negotiations with Iran. “The United States will almost certainly have to deter and contain Iran for the foreseeable future — almost like a Cold War on a small scale,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Perhaps pre-emption of Iran’s nuclear program will be necessary” after all.

Ray Takeyh, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the future likely includes “an Iran with a robust nuclear infrastructure.”

It may be possible to prevent Iran from crossing the line and assembling a nuclear weapon, Takeyh said, but it is unlikely the U.S. and its allies can persuade Iran to abandon the uranium enrichment capability that could produce a weapon in a matter of months.

Perhaps, but that’s a problem for the future. For now, for Congress, the pressure is off and the sense of relief is palpable.

“If you were measuring Iran on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ doomsday clock, it was 10 minutes to midnight,” DeFazio said. “Now it’s 11:30.”