World

5 Politicians Pushing the US Closer to a Disastrous War With Iran

President Obama may be pushing back against the “loose talk of war,” but Congress sure isn't.

Mark Kirk, R-Illinois

Republican candidates for president have made Iran a top issue in their attacks on President Barack Obama. While US and Israeli intelligence have concluded that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon, Rick Santorum recently suggested that “the issue of the day come this fall” could be the existence of a “nuclear Iran,” And Mitt Romney used his recent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to pledge that he would “station multiple carriers and warships at Iran's door.”

President Obama, too, has made Iran a campaign issue, telling reporters at a March 6 press conference, “What’s said on the campaign trail -- those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities...when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war.”

But lost amidst the focus on what the presidential candidates say about Iran's nuclear program is a recognition that, on this issue, it has been Congress moving toward a more confrontational stance with the Islamic Republic. Congress' belligerent stance exists despite the fact that there are International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors on the ground in Iran, and that Iran has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In the House and in the Senate, elected officials have been drafting legislation and issuing statements meant to ratchet up the pressure on Iran. President Obama may be pushing back against the "loose talk of war," but Congress is heavily engaged in just that kind of talk, and a lot more.

Here are five politicians serving in the Congress who have done a lot to push the US toward a belligerent stance on Iran, moving us ever closer to another disastrous “war of choice.”

1. Senator Mark Kirk, R-Illinois

Currently recovering in Chicago from a stroke, this senator has made an indelible impact on the Obama administration's Iran policy. Elected to office partly on the strength of campaign donations from advocates for Israel, Kirk is the co-author of the most consequential sanctions bill yet on Iran, the Kirk-Menendez bill.

In late 2011, Kirk joined forces with Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to attach an Iran sanctions amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012. The bill's aim was to, in the words of conservative writer David Frum, sever “Iran from the entire global payments system.” The amendment prohibits US financial institutions from doing business with the Central Bank of Iran and from doing business with any foreign bank that knowingly deals with Iran's main bank.

Despite the Obama administration's misgivings—officials worried the sanctions would send the price of oil up—the amendment passed 100-0 in the Senate. President Obama signed it into law on New Year's Eve, with the amendment stipulating that the sanctions would go into force 60 days later.

The sanctions are now having their desired effect, and the Iranian populace, including the opposition movement that many US hawks claim to want to help, is bearing the brunt of their impact. The crippling measures have helped to devalue the rial, the Iranian currency, and have contributed to rising unemployment. They have also damaged the quality of medical care in Iran. And international traders have reported that Iran is “having trouble buying rice, cooking oil and other staples to feed its 74 million people weeks before an election.” (When Kirk was asked whether sanctions would lead to hardships on the Iranian citizenry, he said, “it's okay to take the food out of the mouths” of Iranian citizens since their government allegedly plotted “an attack directly on American soil.”)

But experts also argue that crippling sanctions like the ones Kirk authored can increase the likelihood of war. The sanctions “are not really working in terms of changing Iran's behavior,” Vali Nasr, an expert on the Middle East and a former Obama administration advisor, toldForeign Affairs. Instead, the sanctions may cause the Iranian regime to hunker down and, perhaps, lash out at the West. “They're going to be counterproductive, because Iran has an incentive to accelerate to nuclear capability rather than come to the table and negotiate,” Nasr said. And if the acceleration occurs, the prospects for US air strikes become higher.

2. Senator Carl Levin, D-Michigan

This Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee has made headlines in recent weeks with his tough talk on Iran. Levin minced no words in his speech to AIPAC last month, telling conference attendees that if “the sword need[s] to be drawn to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, Israel will wield a powerful shield against Iranian retaliation – a shield strengthened and participated in by the United States of America.” That same day, after meeting with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Levin said that if Iran doesn't stop enriching uranium, “an attack on them by Israel is very likely.”

But this was nothing compared to Levin's latest pronouncement on Iran. In a recent interview taped for C-Span, Levin suggested that the US impose a “no-fly” zone or a naval blockade on Iran to curb Iranian enrichment. While Levin was suggesting that the US pursue these options in lieu of military action, the imposition of a naval blockade is considered an act of war under international law. The same goes for a no-fly zone, as Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess told the Senate last year in the context of Libya. So the US would, in effect, be declaring war on Iran if Levin had his way.

3. Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina

A favorite of the neoconservative wing of the GOP, Graham sees military might as the solution to Syria and Iran. In 2010, Graham told the Halifax International Security Forum that he sees the US waging war on Iran to “neutralize their nuclear program” and “sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime.”

But it's not only words of war that Graham deploys. This year, Graham co-sponsored a Senate resolution that aims to significantly shift current US policy towards Iran.

Graham teamed up with Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Bob Casey (D-PA) to author a resolution that rules out containment as an option of dealing with a potential Iranian nuclear weapon. The resolution is also an effort to shift US policy from stopping an actual nuclear weapon to halting nuclear weapons “capability,” an ill-defined term. As Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), told me in an interview, “if we use that as grounds for whether or not we go to war, we’re on incredibly shaky ground, and war is going to be even more likely than it already is.”

Just Foreign Policy's Robert Naiman further explained the implication of the bill in a February 17 blog post:

It is an attempt to enact a political authorization for military force. It is an attempt to pressure the Administration politically to move forward the tripwire for war, to a place indistinguishable from the status quo that exists today. If successful, this political move would make it impossible for the Administration to pursue meaningful diplomatic engagement with Iran, shutting down the most plausible alternative to war.

The bill was the centerpiece of AIPAC's legislative agenda early this month, as thousands of delegates fanned out across Capitol Hill to pressure politicians to sign on to the bill. AIPAC's lobbying worked: 58 senators from both parties are now co-sponsors of the bill, and a similar resolution in the House has garnered 94 cosponsors.

4. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida

The chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ros-Lehtinen is a leading hawk on Iran. She frequently rails against Iran's ties to Latin America, and has vowed that the US will stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Israel if it takes military action against Iran. She is a vociferous opponent of diplomacy with Iran, and has stated that the Obama administration “must not fall into the regime's trap and again pursue the failed policy of dialogue and engagement.”

Ros-Lehtinen is also the co-sponsor of a sanctions bill that would “ban business with any entity that does $1 million in a single trade with Iran's energy sector, or $5 million over one year.” Even more alarmingly, Ros-Lehtinen proposed a provision in that bill that would bar any US government contact with people affiliated with the Iranian government. As NIAC's Abdi explained, “the House is putting restrictions on the only tool available to prevent a nuclear Iran and prevent a disastrous military confrontation.”

Although the US does not currently have diplomatic ties with Iran (they were cut off following the 1979 revolution in Iran), experts have warned that the wholesale barring of diplomatic contact with Iran would make any US standoff with Iran more volatile by ruling out lines of communication that might prevent a further escalation. Currently, the Swiss government acts as the main go-between for the US and Iran.

Ros-Lehtinen's bill passed the House by a vote of 410-11. It is currently sitting in the Senate.

5. Representative Brad Sherman

This Democrat from California is a strong backer of Israel and an ardent foe of Iran, and it shows in his statements and the legislation he pushes. Sherman is sure that Iran's nuclear program has “no other purpose but” for a nuclear weapon. And he's proud that he has been “pressing for sanctions since 1998.”

The latest sanctions bill Sherman is pushing for was re-introduced last year, and is titled the Stop Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program Act. It is under consideration in a number of House committees.

The aim of the bill is to further “tighten economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran and its remaining business partners.” But one specific provision in the legislation garnered a lot of critical attention: the prohibition on “the transfer of any goods, services or technology needed to keep Iran’s American-made aircraft flying.” Iran possesses 15 aircraft that run on US-made engines, which were sold to Iran when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a stalwart Western ally, was in power in Iran.

Sherman contends that Iran's civilian aircraft is used to facilitate “the supply of weapons to Syria, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.” But critics say that Sherman's bill would harm the people of Iran and potentially lead to civilian deaths.

M.J. Rosenberg, a blogger highly critical of the Israel lobby and Israeli policy towards Iran, wrote in November 2011:

Sherman's legislation would prevent the president from permitting the inspection and repair of U.S.-manufactured engines on Iranian civilian aircraft. The planes in question were sold to the Iranians back in the 1970's (when the shah was in power) and are now dangerously out-of-date. Current Iran sanction laws prohibit the sale of new planes and parts to Iran, but a humanitarian exception in the law permits repairs and the replacement of parts necessary to prevent civilian air crashes. It is that exception Sherman is hell-bent to remove.

What better way to ensure a war than to have Iranian civilians die because of US actions? 

Alex Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and a staff reporter for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.