President Trump’s order to carry out the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who led Iran’s military operations in the Middle East as head of his nation’s elite Quds force, threatened to explode into a regional war with the potential to involve many nations and kill thousands. Millions of Iranians converged in Tehran to mourn Soleimani, underscoring his popularity, and the nation’s palpable anger as the government promised retribution.
While President Trump and U.S. officials defended the drone attack that killed Soleimani by stating that the general was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks” on Americans, the administration’s failure to produce any evidence has fueled skepticism about whether the assassination was justified or legal. Ir response, the Islamic Republic has announced it will no longer honor its commitment to limit its enrichment of uranium, stepping away from a core provision of the 2015 six-nation international nuclear agreement that President Trump withdrew from in May 2018. On Jan. 7, Iran followed through on its threat to retaliate for Washington’s murder of Soleimani, launching more than a dozen missiles at two Iraq bases the house U.S. troops.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Here, she reviews the events leading up to the current U.S.-Iran crisis and the role the U.S. Congress could play in preventing a catastrophic regional war.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: The assassination of Gen. Suleimani was an act of war. It was illegal under international law. It was illegal under the U.S. Constitution. It was illegal to claim that it was going to be based on the 2002 so-called Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by the Congress to authorize the Iraq war almost 20 years ago. None of that is true. None of that is legal. None of that is legitimate. And that’s where we have to start. That’s number one.
The second point on where we start and where we are means that we have to be very, very careful not to slip up, if you will, on how we think about when this started. Because what we’re hearing a lot in the mainstream press, which I must say is not doing as badly this time around as they did around the Iraq war in 2003, when virtually all of the mainstream press was cheerleading in one way or another for that war. This time around, we’re seeing much more critical coverage.
But one of the points that we’re consistently not hearing has to do with when it started. The claim is made that this crisis started with the death of one U.S. military contractor on the 25th of December and everything else was in response to that. A military contractor was killed. And therefore, the Trump administration authorized a major attack on five different bases linked to an Iraqi militia that was blamed for the attack on a military base that led to the death of the contractor – but without any evidence. And the militia denies that they had done it. So that’s one point of, you know, just un-clarity.
But more importantly, it leaves out that this crisis did not start there. And it didn’t start when there was later a protest that attacked the U.S. Embassy — where we should note, no one was killed. Everybody walked away fine. It wasn’t even begun with the killing of Suleimani. It was begun when the U.S. walked away from the Iran nuclear deal two years ago. That’s what set this current crisis in motion. And the reason that it’s so important to keep that in mind is that it goes back to this question of who’s responsible for all this?
Certainly, there’s been a lot of tit-for-tat stuff between the U.S. and Iran in the last couple of years. But how did it really start? There is no question. It started with the U.S. withdrawal. So, when we look at how history is determined, it’s determined by when you start the clock. If you start the clock on the reaction to the U.S. withdrawal, rather than the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, you’re going to have a wrong view of history in terms of who’s responsible for all this. So that’s I just think a very important starting point for us.
SCOTT HARRIS: What is the responsibility of Congress right now? Congress is empowered to declare war. The president is not. But Congress over many decades has ceded that power to the executive branch. To the presidency. What should Congress be doing right now? There are many voices in the House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats, particularly who are angrily denouncing any move to a new major war with Iran.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Right now, Congress is what stands between the possibility of resolving this crisis and complete Armageddon or whatever term you want to use. Congress is in the most important position and it is a big question. The rhetoric coming from many in Congress has been great. Whether there will be action to match that rhetoric, we still don’t know. There are bills pending in both the House and the Senate. The House bills introduced by Reps. Barbara Lee and Ilhan Omar; in the Senate by Sen. Tim Kaine that are calling for a new war powers restriction, which would enforce the War Powers Act prohibition on keeping troops abroad, calling for them to be brought home within 30 days. That’s an important start. It’s not good enough.
There’s nothing in it about the crucial factor of Congress’ constitutionally guaranteed power of the purse. That’s where we really need to be looking here. There was agreement between the House and the Senate on amendments to the defense spending bill, that would have prohibited among other things, the specific use of any U.S. funds to attack Iran. Those amendments, there were four of them. They were dismissed. The Democrats simply gave them away when the Republicans demanded that they do so in the negotiations with the White House, saying that if you keep it in here, it will lead to a shutdown of the government.
And they weren’t willing to stand up to say, this has to be in there and we’re going to fight for it. They didn’t fight for it. And we’re seeing now the results of not having fought for it. Whether they’re willing to fight for it now – hopefully, these bills will pass. Hopefully, we’ll see some actual action designed to cut back the money. Stop funding the shipping of 4,000 new troops who were being deployed to the region, bring them back. So Congress is going to have to be the one part of the three-part government that stands up and says, “No more. We’re going to stop this. We’re going to stop it now.”