2020 Democrats Warn of U.S.-Iran Risks as Trump Pressures Tehran

Steven T. Dennis and Daniel Flatley
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2020 Democrats Warn of U.S.-Iran Risks as Trump Pressures Tehran

(Bloomberg) -- Democratic presidential candidates are expressing growing alarm over the escalating confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, and the possibility that it could lead to war.

“It would be an absolute disaster,” said Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “It would likely make the disaster of the war in Iraq look small and we’ve got to do everything we can to prevent that from happening.”

Sanders said he was trying to rally fellow lawmakers to make it clear to President Donald Trump that he cannot involve the country in a military conflict without authorization.

“The president has to understand that the Constitution mandates that it’s Congress that decides when we go into war, not the president alone,” Sanders said.

“So we are working now in one way or another to get 51 members of the Senate and hopefully a majority in the House, to say, you know, you don’t have the authority. He does not have the authority to go to war in Iran,” he added.

This assertion of Congress’s war-making authority is being led in the House by Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, a Marine Corps veteran who running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Moulton said the U.S. response this month to perceived threats from Iran is “a massive overreaction,” and he introduced a resolution Wednesday that would explicitly require congressional approval “prior to engaging in hostilities within the sovereign country of Iran.”

“I’m not standing here saying Iran isn’t a threat,” Moulton said in a brief interview Thursday. “Iran is a major threat to our national security but we’ve got to be smart and strategic about how we deal with them."

New Tensions

Another 2020 candidate, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, also signed on to legislation that would prevent government funds from being spent on military action in Iran that hasn’t been authorized by Congress.

“We cannot let the Trump Admin drag us into yet another war in the Middle East,” Warren said Tuesday on Twitter. “This is exactly why the President doesn’t have the constitutional authority to declare war.”

Democratic front-runner Joe Biden said Tuesday that he was concerned the Trump administration would instigate a military confrontation. He urged the White House to abide by the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord last year.

“The way to prevent Iran from being a nuclear power is to stay in the agreement,” Biden told reporters in Concord, New Hampshire. The agreement between the Tehran government and world powers was reached when Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president.

Tensions heightened this month after the administration revoked waivers that allowed Iran to continue selling oil to some customers despite American sanctions. The U.S. has ordered its non-emergency government staff to leave Iraq amid fears that the region might be heading toward another conflict.

‘Work This Out’

Yet that possibility doesn’t seem to have caught on for many Democratic voters on the campaign trail. At events across New Hampshire this week, Biden and Senator Kamala Harris of California did not raise the issue.

Harris, however, made clear Wednesday she opposed a course of action that leads to combat.

“We cannot afford to play games with the issue and I don’t know what exactly the president has in mind," she said. “There is no question that a first priority has to be to protect our personnel and troops who are in the region, but we cannot go to war with Iran, so we need to work this out.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota cited the departure of administration officials with long military experience as a source of her growing disquiet.

“You don’t have Mattis there any more and you don’t have McMaster there any more and you’ve got a president that likes to make foreign policy by tweet,” she said, referring to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

Klobuchar said Trump abandoned U.S. allies by leaving the Iran agreement.

“I truly believe that if we had stayed in that agreement, that this wouldn’t be happening right now. He has in many ways brought this on,” she said.

Trump, denying reports of “infighting” in his administration over Iran policy, tweeted Wednesday: “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”

Yet critics of his administration said the U.S. wasn’t sharing enough clear evidence of Iranian threats and that without better intelligence, the latest buildup was reminiscent of the lead-up to the Iraq war in late 2002, which was based on faulty intelligence. Iranian officials have accused administration hawks of hyping the threat of war.

Not all of the American politicians who spoke of their misgivings over Iran were Democrats.

Romney’s Reaction

“The president made it very clear when he was campaigning that he thought the worst foreign policy mistake we’ve made ever perhaps was going into Iraq,” said Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who has been both a critic and a supporter of Trump’s. “There’s no appetite for going into war in the Middle East.”

Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, said the solution to the conflict was to “deter” Iran’s activity and threats. “We need to show them that that’s not acceptable,” Romney said. “Strength deters bad action.”

As the U.S. seeks to isolate Iran economically and diplomatically, the country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, met with Japanese officials in Tokyo on Thursday, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, strongly urged Iran to abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement and avoid kindling tensions in the Middle East, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Kono pointed out that Japan had supported the agreement, according to the ministry’s statement. Last week, Iran warned European nations that it was ready to quit the accord in 60 days if it doesn’t start seeing greater economic benefits from the agreement.

American officials reiterated Wednesday that the Trump administration wasn’t seeking a war, but that it would hold Iran “accountable” for its actions and those of its proxies. The officials, who asked not to be identified, said the decision to withdraw embassy staff was based on considerations of safety and not meant as political signaling.

‘Fake News’

Earlier this week, the president rejected a report that his administration was planning for war, but then warned he’d send “a hell of a lot more” than 120,000 troops to the Middle East in the event of hostilities.

“I think it’s fake news, OK?” Trump told reporters outside the White House on Tuesday, after being asked about a New York Times report that plans envision sending 120,000 U.S. troops to fight the Islamic Republic.

“Now would I do that? Absolutely,” Trump added. “But I have not planned for that. If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

(Updates to add comments from lawmakers beginning in the sixth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Ladane Nasseri, Zainab Fattah, Sahil Kapur and Isabel Reynolds.

To contact the reporters on this story: Steven T. Dennis in Washington at sdennis17@bloomberg.net;Daniel Flatley in Washington at dflatley1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Anna Edgerton

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