Intel: How Democrats are using John Bolton’s Iraq War baggage to push back on Trump’s Iran policy

al-monitor US national security adviser John Bolton speaks during an interview at the White House in Washington, March 29, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Brendan McDermid.

Jun 19, 2019

National security adviser John Bolton wasn’t on Capitol Hill today, but he still took center stage as Democrats grilled State Department Iran coordinator Brian Hook on the Donald Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy.

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., pressed Hook on the department’s refusal to state that it does not currently have congressional authorization to launch military action against Iran, drawing parallels to Bolton’s role in fomenting arguments for the Iraq War while serving in the George W. Bush administration.

Bolton “is a long-time proponent of regime change in Tehran,” said Deutch. “He continually questions the utility of negotiating with Iran and frequently indicates that the Iranian regime will not be in power in the coming years.”

Deutch pointed to what he called Bolton’s “misleading or false statements” about Iraq stockpiling weapons of mass destruction while he was undersecretary of state for arms control under Bush.

Why it matters: Democrats have sounded alarm bells over the State Department’s refusal to affirm that an 18-year-old Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) does not give the Donald Trump administration the authority to attack Iran.

“I want to make it very clear, Mr. Hook, that military action against Iran without the approval of Congress is absolutely not an option,” said House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. “The AUMF of 2001 has no relevance of the situation with Tehran today, and I will resist the administration using that as an excuse to go to war.”

The 2001 AUMF serves as the legal basis for counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not rule out using the 2001 AUMF against Iran while testifying before the Senate earlier this year, alleging links between Tehran and al-Qaeda.

Hook also refused to rule it out today, deferring to the State Department’s legal adviser.

“There is no offensive action; it’s a defensive move we have made,” Hook said in reference to the 1,000 additional troops the United States is deploying to the region to counter Iran.

Escalation: Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a Trump ally, is arguing that the White House does not need congressional authorization to strike Iran, telling Politico the president should strike “naval or munition storage or refining capabilities” in order to deter Iran.

Pompeo, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford and former Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan last briefed Congress on Iran last month. Since then, the Trump administration has blamed Tehran for attacking Japanese and Norwegian vessels in the Gulf of Oman. And just today, a short-range missile struck a site used by foreign oil companies in Iraq, including US oil giant ExxonMobil. Meanwhile, Tehran said it is gearing up to violate parts of the nuclear deal in response to Washington’s withdrawal from the accord and increased sanctions.

Weakening Tehran? Still, Hook maintained that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign is serving as a credible deterrent against Tehran and weakening its military capacity across the region. Hook said Iran reduced its military spending by 10% from 2017 to 2018 and the budget for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ cyber capabilities is falling short.

He also noted that Shiite military groups in Syria have stated that Iran no longer has the money to pay them at the same rates and attributed Hezbollah and Hamas’ “unprecedented austerity plans” to “a lack of funding from Iran.”

“Iran has never come to the negotiating table in its 40-year history without pressure,” argued Hook, stating that the Trump administration is still willing to negotiate with Iran “when the time is right” to “reach a comprehensive deal.”

What’s next? Democrats are looking at a provision in this year’s State Department funding bill that would repeal the 2001 AUMF within eight months, eliminating the possibility that the Trump administration could use it to justify attacking Iran. The House passed the bill 232-193 today, but the repeal faces uncertain prospects in the Republican-held Senate. Rep, Mike McCaul, R-Texas, argued at today's hearing that the provision would undermine US counterterrorism operations throughout the world.

Know more: Don’t miss Pentagon Correspondent Jack Detsch’s report on how the United States is weighing on Asian countries to beef up security for their oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

-Bryant Harris

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