3 questions Congress should ask the Trump administration on Iran

Written by on May 21, 2019

Events are moving quickly in the Persian Gulf. With multiple threat streams indicating the possibility of Iranian retaliation against the U.S., a reported rocket launch that landed less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and national security adviser John Bolton trying to mold the policy process in his image, it’s difficult to keep up with all of the developments.

From the looks of it, members of Congress seem to be flying in the dark. The Trump administration’s deliberations with Congress, an independent and co-equal branch of government, have been sorely inadequate. The White House just got around to briefing the Gang of 8 on Thursday, a meeting several lawmakers who participated found less than informative. Democrats and Republicans alike are clamoring for information on the fast-evolving Iran situation — information Congress is entitled to as the country’s lawmaking body. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump loyalist on Capitol Hill, was indignant about the lack of consultation: “I think they should tell us what the hell is going on.”

When senior Trump national security officials take the government-issued black suburbans up to the Capitol to brief the full Senate and House next week, lawmakers need to deliver the administration a message and ask pertinent questions to clear the confusion up.

  • Message 1: You took too long to get here. Congress is the branch of government closest to the public. It also happens to be the branch that makes the laws that guide public policy. It’s a serious undertaking that requires as much information and intelligence the executive branch can provide. Without that information, lawmakers simply can’t make good laws that promote the U.S. national security interest. Congress as a collective body, regardless of party, must deliver a warning before the briefing even starts that stonewalling is unacceptable and that if it continues, Congress may have to register its disapproval through the appropriations process.
  • Question 1: Is maximum pressure working? The Trump administration frequently provides off-the-record comments and public remarks patting itself on the back for the success of the sanctions regime. State Department envoy Brian Hook regularly touts Iran’s economic contraction as a result of the oil and banking sanctions and uses the major decrease in Tehran’s oil exports as a sign of how biting the measures are. But Iran’s behavior hasn’t changed regardless of the financial squeeze. Its foreign policy is as troubling to the region’s governments today as it was before Trump reimposed and fired a torrent of economic weapons against the regime. How far is the administration willing to go with its pressure campaign? Are they at least open to a different course of action?
  • Question 2: Are we talking to Tehran? President Trump is a deal-maker. He doesn’t court a military confrontation. What he wants above all is for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to call him up. That hypothetical will only happen if the administration is truly interested in a diplomatic outcome and willing to offer the Iranians an off-ramp. Does the White House currently have a reliable channel of communication with Tehran to begin exploratory diplomacy or at least initiate a conversation? If not, why not?
  • Question 3: Is the administration aligned on Iran policy? Reports of administration infighting are rampant. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doesn’t appreciate Bolton’s manhandling of the policymaking process, Trump is getting annoyed with Bolton’s hawkishness, and military planners at the Pentagon are concerned about a rush to a possible armed confrontation. None of this bodes well for administration unity. Indeed, all of the competing viewpoints only add to the whirlwind and further complicate Washington’s desire to send an unambiguous message to Iran about what U.S. policy actually is.

Lawmakers will have a number of other questions on their minds, some of which officials may not know the answer to. But this short list would serve as a useful foundation for a Congress that has watched this escalation like a baseball fan watches the game — from the bleachers.

Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.

Source: Washington Examiner – Congress

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