Dominated by those hawkish against Iran, the Trump Administration has a sizeable contingent that has been itching to start a war with Iran. It is a big enough concern that Congress has let this inform the language of bills.
Numerous bills, including sanctions-related bills and recent National Defense Authorization Acts, have included language declaring that nothing in the bill may be construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran. Some bills have had language to this effect as far back as 2012.
This suggests that Congress is unlikely to sign off if the administration just asks for a new war authorization specifically aimed at Iran. Instead, the administration is looking to again try to broaden the decades-old authorization they already have, hoping to squeeze one last big, plainly unintended war out of it.
To that end, officials have begun trying to advance a preposterous claim that Iran is secretly backing “high-level al-Qaeda operatives.” Iran has been at war with al-Qaeda since the group’s founding, and the Shi’ite Iranian government is fundamentally incompatible with the Salafist terrorist group.
Tying the two groups together is so absurd that US officials have rarely tried to argue for doing so, instead presenting the possibility as little more than a notion. Officials seem now to hope that this notion, repeated often enough and with enough alarmist tone, will just become widely accepted, or at least not challenged enough to be rejected out-of-hand.
It is at that point the hawks’ favorite gift that keeps on giving, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) starts to matter. That AUMF authorized a war against al-Qaeda, and has been broadened since to include anything remotely al-Qaeda-affiliated, even groups that didn’t exist in 2001.
It was obvious the 2001 AUMF was never meant to apply to Iran, but even a plainly flimsy argument has tended to be enough to support America’s assorted other wars to come out of that authorization. Once a president picks a fight, Congressional leadership rarely has any interest in reviewing it.
This seemingly eternal malleability of the AUMF has been behind several so-far-unsuccessful attempts to repeal and replace it with something more clearly defined. Administrations have resisted such efforts, and even if Congress has the foresight to try to do so before the administration can attack Iran, they will doubtless face veto threats and intense pressure.