by Rishav Dha
On January 3rd, 2020, both Americans and Iranians awoke to dramatic news- one of Iran’s top military generals, Qassim Soleimani, had been killed in a US drone strike. According to the Trump administration, US intelligence had confirmed that Soleimani was planning an attack on US soil and US civilians. Later reports from the CIA portrayed a different story, claiming that any proof of such an attack being planned was shaky and “razor thin” at best. In any case, the death of Soleimani was a shocking blow to both the Iranian people and to US citizens, who weren’t expecting a new decade to start with war.
Historical Context Behind the Iran-US conflict
Before 1949, US relations with Iran were minimal outside of small meetings and business deals. By 1949, President Truman was in office and the so-called “war on communism” was beginning. Truman began meeting with the Shah of Iran, as his administration feared that Iran would be among the first of the Middle Eastern states to ‘fall to communism’ and reasoned that Iran was an important strategic position for the fight against the USSR. In 1953, the British MI6 and American CIA organized a coup against Mohammed Mossadeq, the prime minister of Iran. This was the beginning of over half a century of resentment towards Americans in Iran. After the coup, the US began sending some $1.2 billion dollars in foreign aid to Iran, particularly towards assisting the Shah of Iran’s brutal secret police force. The Shah of Iran acted as a puppet leader for America in Iran, buying military hardware and meeting with White House officials on numerous occasions. This continued for as long as two decades, and the US began to consider Iran a valuable ally against the Soviet Union.
However, the Iranian public’s dislike for America would come to a head in Iran in 1979, when the Shah of Iran was deposed and replaced with the strongly-anti-American Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Shah of Iran, now suffering from terminal illness, requested to be given entry into the US embassy. He was denied embassy at first, but after President Jimmy Carter was pressured by notable pro-Shah figures such as Henry Kissinger, he was allowed in. This angered some of the revolutionaries of Iran, who responded by invading the US embassy and holding the delegates there hostage for over a year. A US operation to rescue these hostages resulted in the deaths of eight American soldiers.
Under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the U.S. passed several sanction bills against Iran. In 1988, the US Navy used guided missiles to shoot down Iranian Airbus A300B2, killing 290 civilians from six nations (including 66 children). This infamous event would go down in history as Iran Air Flight 655. US intelligence reported that the flight was a warplane and didn’t respond to any attempts of radio communication. Both of these statements were untrue, as the flight was a commercial airliner, and the radio calls the US Navy made were in military frequencies that commercial planes didn’t have access to.
In April 2016, the US Supreme Court ruled that Iran had to pay $2 billion dollars in reparations to victims of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings. In the 1983 incident, several American and French soldiers were killed by truck bombs. Responding to the Supreme Court, the Iranian parliament voted to pressure the US to return frozen Iranian assets, pay reparations for having partially orchestrated the 1953 Iranian coup, make up for supporting Iraq in the Iraq-Iran war. The Supreme Court ruled that this request was invalid because U.S. soldiers were supposedly on a peacekeeping mission, and suggested that victims of the bombings should sue the Iranian government.
Tensions between the US and Iran are growing under the Trump administration. On May 25th, 2019, the Trump administration declared that tensions with Iran were leading to a national emergency and helped sell $8 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran responded on the 1st of June, claiming that Iran was willing to hold peace talks and negotiate deals, so long as the US didn’t pressure them with military posturing and trade sanctions. Tensions escalated throughout the year, as President Trump ordered the murder of the high-ranking Iranian general Quasem Soleimani by US drones. Iran’s Supreme Leader vowed “severe revenge” against the United States for this attack.
The Constitutionality of War Declarations
President Trump’s decision to assassinate Soleimani did not follow standard procedure for war declarations, in which the House and the Senate vote on whether to declare war against another sovereign nation. Instead, Trump met with his Defense Department and signed an order for drones to kill Soleimani. Using drones without judicial or congressional authorization is not a new tactic; in fact, President Obama was infamous for using drones often and with disastrous results. In an appalling incident in 2015, US Air Force AC-130U gunship attacked the Kunduz Trauma Centre operated by Doctors Without Borders in the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan. Top US officials claimed that the hospital was harboring Taliban members, but there was no real evidence that such a thing was true. Even the members of the cockpit of the AC-130U were seen questioning the legality of the bombing in video footage of their flight released after the incident. As many as 42 people were killed, and over 30 were injured by this bombing. MSF reported that six intensive care patients were burned to death in their beds, some hospital staff were decapitated and lost limbs to shrapnel, and others were shot from the air as they tried to flee the burning building. Incidents such as this one reinforce why congressional and judicial review are important; they ensure that US military resources are only expended on targeting real threats, and they reduce the possibility of murdering innocent civilians.
Congress can check the president’s power to declare war. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 provides that the US can only send its army into action by either a declaration of war from Congress or in “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” This resolution has been violated once — by President Clinton during the Kosovo War. Congress disapproved of Clinton’s decision to authorize bombings in Kosovo without their consent, but did not take any successful legal actions against him. There are clear parallels between Clinton’s decision to bomb Kosovo in the after his impeachment trial and Trump’s decision to drone-strike Soleimani during his own trial.
The constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution has been called into question multiple times. Because Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution prevents the President from using armed forces without a Congressional declaration of war, it’s questionable whether the resolution is consistent with the Constitution. Some have argued that Congressional only needs to approve “total wars,” and that since Congress is only required to “provide and maintain a Navy” under Article 1, Section 8, using drones and gunships for anti-terrorist operations should be the executive’s decision rather than the legislature’s. Others who oppose the Resolution have noted that since the 9/11 attacks, the US has been in a national state of emergency, so the Resolution gives Congress little power to actually stop the President from declaring war in the 21st century.
Members of Congress have tried to halt further attacks against Iran. Representative Ilhan Omar and Representative Barbara Lee announced on January 5th, 2020 a War Powers Resolution to remove US military from hostilities against Iran, since the authorization of US troops in Iran hadn’t gone through Congress. Their resolution is a companion bill to a similar War Powers Resolution going through the Senate by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA). In a statement, Omar claimed that “the assassination of Qassim Soleimani was an act of war undertaken without Congressional authorization, in violation of the Constitution of the United States of America… We in Congress must exercise our Constitutional duty- and do everything in our power to stop another disastrous war.” A joint movement in the House and Senate is also growing to block funding for the ‘war’ in Iran, led by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna. In a statement on January 3rd, 2020, Khanna said, “War must be the last recourse in our international relations. That is why our Founding Fathers gave the responsibility over war to Congress. Congressional inaction in the face of the threat of a catastrophic and unconstitutional Middle East conflict is not acceptable.”
It will be interesting to see in the coming months how the candidates of the 2020 presidential election view diplomacy with Iran, and whether the bills to restrict Pentagon funding and use of military force get passed by Congress.