President Donald Trump came perilously close to launching a military strike on Iran last week before pulling back at the last minute, but on Tuesday he returned to escalating tensions with Tehran by tweeting insults at Iranian leaders and threatening devastation in the event of a conflict.
“Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force,” Trump tweeted. “In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.”
As an erratic president brings the U.S. to the brink of military conflict with the second-largest country in the Middle East, some Senate Democrats are considering holding a key defense bill hostage until Republicans agree to a vote on an amendment that would force Trump to get congressional authorization for military action against Iran. Several key Democrats have floated a filibuster of the National Defense Authorization Act ― a bill that sets defense policies and authorizes hundreds of billions of dollars in spending.
“It would be the height of irresponsibility, and a true abdication of our constitutional duty, to finish the NDAA while blocking a vote on our urgent, bipartisan amendment to prevent an unauthorized war,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a co-sponsor of the amendment.
It is critical that we take advantage of this moment to regain some of the relevance of the Senate in decision-making around war.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.)
Blocking passage of the NDAA would be a drastic step for Senate Democrats, although those supporting the move say it is necessary given the potential for conflict with Iran. It’s also part of a longstanding push for legislation by senators such as Udall that would increase congressional oversight, including via amendments to the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that multiple administrations have used to bypass Congress for launching military actions abroad.
“It is critical that we take advantage of this moment to regain some of the relevance of the Senate in decision-making around war,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) on Tuesday.
But Republicans have largely backed Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the nuclear deal ― and are on board with military action.
“You got to keep mind, Iran, they’re a bunch of terrorists and they hate us. And we’re at war with them,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told CNN.
They have also heavily criticized Democratic senators’ potential filibuster of the NDAA, with Inhofe telling HuffPost it would be “morally wrong.”
“The whole reason for delaying this thing is purely political,” Inhofe said. “These guys are running for president. They want to be on TV instead of out there doing their job.”
Relations between Iran and the United States have steadily deteriorated since the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the multi-nation 2015 nuclear deal. The agreement curbed Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for economic relief, but Trump pulled out of the deal in May of 2017 and imposed heavy economic sanctions on Tehran ― setting a course for the current crisis.
In recent weeks, a number of incidents have pushed Washington and Tehran closer to military conflict. The U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf and ordered 1,000 additional troops to the region, claiming intelligence of an Iranian threat. American officials also blamed Iran for allegedly sabotaging foreign oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, which Iran has denied.
But the most dangerous escalation came last Thursday when Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone that it claimed was violating its airspace. Trump responded by authorizing military strikes on a number of Iranian targets but ultimately abandoned the plan ― later claiming he made the decision only 10 minutes before the attack was set to take place.
It’s hard to think of something more deserving of a filibuster and floor time than a debate about whether to send our men and women in uniform to war.
Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight
The close call last week intensified the push for an amendment that would give Congress oversight when it comes to a war with Iran. Although not all Democratic senators have committed to blocking the NDAA, many lawmakers including Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) say they support the move.
But there has been significant bipartisan concern from experts and lawmakers about the lack of oversight of the Trump administration’s Iran policy, especially given Trump’s history of erratic decision-making and the fact that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have long supported the idea of U.S. military strikes on Iran.
“It’s hard to think of something more deserving of a filibuster and floor time than a debate about whether to send our men and women in uniform to war,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit government watchdog. “Americans deserve to know where their Senators stand on going to war with Iran, and the Senate should allow a debate and vote on the Udall amendment.”
Meanwhile, the standoff between the U.S. and Iran continued this week as leaders of the two countries traded insults and threats. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani mocked the new round of U.S. sanctions announced this week and called the White House “mentally disabled” in a televised address on Tuesday. Trump then criticized and threatened Iran’s leadership in a series of tweets, calling Rouhani’s statement “ignorant and insulting” while bragging about U.S. military capabilities.
When a reporter asked Trump later on Tuesday whether an exit strategy was in place in the event of a conflict with Iran, the president brushed aside the question.
“You are not going to need an exit strategy. I don’t need exit strategies,” Trump said.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.