Team Trump’s Iran War Rationales Are Nonsense

by Ben Armbruster

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed the Trump administration’s campaign for regime change and possible war with Iran during a Senate hearing on Wednesday by continuing to promote a dubious link between Iran and al-Qaeda. In turn, he refused to rule out whether the 2001 congressional authorization for war in Afghanistan could be used to justify war with Iran.

When asked by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) whether the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) applies to Iran or the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the Trump administration this week controversially labeled a terrorist organization, Pompeo demurred.

“I’d prefer just leave that to lawyers, senator,” Pompeo replied, even though he went to Harvard Law School and worked as a lawyer at a prominent Washington, DC law firm upon graduation.

“But you’re unwilling to state unequivocally that…Iran had something to do with the attacks on 9/11?” Paul then asked.

“The legal question I’ll leave to counsel,” Pompeo said, claiming though, that Iran’s connection to al-Qaeda “is very real.”

Pompeo first promoted this bogus claim of strong links between al-Qaeda and Iran when he was CIA director. The claim is seemingly part of the Trump administration’s wider years-long effort—which has included withdrawing from the Iran deal, ramping up bellicose rhetoric, and goading Iran into violating the nuclear agreement—to put the United States back on a path to war.

But not only is the connection between al-Qaeda and Iran weak, the suggestion that the 2001 AUMF would therefore apply is complete nonsense.

A 2012 report by the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point found that the relationship between al-Qaeda, a Sunni terrorist group, and Iran, led by Shiite clerics, is “not one of alliance” but “highly antagonistic” and “largely based on indirect and unpleasant negotiations over the release of detained jihadis and their families, including members of Bin Laden’s family.”

And a study last year by the New America Foundation came to a similar conclusion. It found “no evidence of cooperation…on planning or carrying out terrorist attacks” between Iran and al-Qaeda and that any cooperation or relationship was one of either expediency or calculation.

When Pompeo first floated this link back in 2017, experts at the time said that they’ve “never seen any evidence of an active collaboration,” dismissed the connection as an “oversimplification of the facts.” They said that any relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda has largely been “an on-again, off-again marriage of convenience pockmarked by bouts of bitter acrimony.”

Given that the al-Qaeda-Iran connection isn’t what Pompeo and Team Trump are making it out to be, and they have offered no proof that Iran had anything to do with 9/11, the 2001 AUMF in turn has nothing to do with Iran.

Even granting some of the Trump administration’s claims—for example, that al-Qaeda operatives are living in Iran—Steve Vladeck and Tess Bridgeman of Just Security note, that “it’s questionable whether the 2001 AUMF would apply to a country harboring AQ today, as opposed to a country that ‘harbored’ (past tense) those groups on or before 9/11, the clear intent of the statutory authorization.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Paul agreed. “I don’t think that dog hunts very well,” he said, referring to Pompeo’s claim of “very real” links between al-Qaeda and Iran. He added:

I am troubled that the administration can’t unequivocally say that you haven’t been given power [to start a war with Iran]. I can tell you explicitly that you have not been given power or authority by Congress to have a war with Iran.

Indeed, Congress has not given any authorities for Trump to start a war with Iran. In fact, just this month, a bipartisan group of senators (including Paul) led by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced a bill that actively forbids the White House from starting a war with Iran without congressional approval.

Pompeo’s remarks are indeed troubling, as Paul noted, not only because of the signal they send about U.S policy, but also because of the relatively little attention they have received.

Normally, a very senior U.S. official leaving the door open for another major war in the Middle East, using the same exact logic the George W. Bush administration used to sell the war in Iraq, would be major topic of conversation. Although news outlets did pick up the exchange between Paul and Pompeo, its Trump-era newsworthiness has been quite limited. Pompeo’s remarks, for instance, were featured in a story on page A8 in today’s New York Times.

Ben Armbruster is the communications director for Win Without War and previously served as national security editor at ThinkProgress.

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  1. This that you don’t have a Congress permit to start a war with so and so is all good and dandy for what it’s worth, for a regime that is respectful of internal or international law, non of the US regimes ever since WWII had or have respect for any of US’ or international laws. This country is the true leading sponsor of terror in the world and the world is tired of her and her wars and her self serving “interests”.

  2. Ali Mostofi, I don’t even wish my enemy being subjected or exposed to an illegal war. But I loved to see your comments after the American bombs are falling on your remaining family back home and evaporating them with their shelters in which they live! If this scenario doesn’t wake you up I really don’t know what would!
    An American war against Iran only proves the hardliners right and believe me they can encourage 40 million people go to war against the US and its interests over night. Mobilizations against the invading enemies have happened by the Persians many times in their long history and it will happen again if needed and this is not threat but a reality. It’s time for you to wake up and smell the coffee!

  3. This current American regime only knows of three tools to conduct foreign policy, these three that have been used numerously without achieving any policy end by last few American regimes are: Sanctions, verbal Threats, Terrorists designation of whoever doesn’t agree with them. All these foolish policy conducting tools comes out of the rear mouth of a country that has not won a single war ever since WWII except for the Caribbean island of Granada, population 91000. Is about time that for this country to SFU.

  4. Remind me again how many Iranian terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center?
    Oh that’s right – none.

  5. Ali Mostofi poses an interesting question: “Why does the US need any justification to declare war on the Ayatollahs? ”

    The answer is simple: both US domestic law and International Law requires that the US government provide a justification for war. It can not simply declare some variation on:
    1) Because I want to
    2) Because I don’t like him
    3) Because it’ll all work out in the end.

    Ali then states: “The last thing the US wants, is an end game for the Ayatollahs. Imagine a peaceful Middle East. Who wouldn’t benefit? Obviously the arms oil traders most of whom are in the US” which is, of course, merely a variation of “because it’ll all work out in the end”.

    Here’s news for Ali. Putting an “end” to the Ayatollahs will not lead to your “imagined peaceful Middle East”. Far from it.

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