Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) has been in Congress since 1986. In April 2006, he wrote a letter to President Bush to remind him that he must seek authorization from Congress before launching any preemptive attacks against Iran. He also introduced Resolution 391 to the same effect as well as a similar amendment to this year’s Defense Authorization Act (which was voted down). One year later, rumors of an upcoming U.S. military assault on Iran still abound, the latest from Russian intelligence that predicts a Good Friday attack. Here Rep. DeFazio talks of the congressional strategy to prevent a war with Iran.

Michael Shank: What difference is there, if any, in the way the president is rallying the American public and the U.S. Congress for a potential attack on Iran and the way he did so with Iraq?

Rep. Peter DeFazio: There’s been nowhere near the level of massive deception, phoneying up of intelligence, direct threats, talk about mushroom clouds and the unmanned aerial vehicles that were going to fly chemical and biological weapons into the interior of the United States. They haven’t done that.

We’re concerned that there’s an embedded plan, embedded in the minds of the same neo-cons who manufactured the war in Iraq, the same neo-cons who have been so wrong every step of the way about us being welcomed as liberators, about how Iraq could pay for its own reconstruction, about the size of the force necessary. They’ve been wrong about everything, but they still think they’re right.

It seems there is a group within the administration, perhaps led by Vice President Cheney, that wants to launch a preemptive or preventative or unilateral war against Iran. That’s why I’ve twice written to the president, getting members of Congress together to cosign. I’ve offered an amendment on the floor on this issue. We lost. All I was trying to do was restate the constitution. It’s very simple: that Congress and only Congress has the authority to initiate a war, a war that’s not a result of a direct attack on the United States or its armed forces.

Now, the other thing the president is trying to do here, and the administration, is say that the Iranians are responsible for some of the most devastating attacks on our troops. It may well be that those materials that form those weapons are coming out of Iran. Is the Iranian government involved, at what level are Iranian forces involved? There’s no clear answer to that.

And, of course, the administration has steadfastly refused to engage in diplomacy. Iran, before their current right-wing president, made a very broad offer back in 2003 to come to the table with no conditions with the United States. Now it seems like we can’t get to the table. But if you look at the European Union (EU) position and the Iranian position, they’re not very far apart on many things. The EU is willing to go to the table with Iran suspending uranium enrichment after the talks convene. In terms of the United States, we say, “we won’t talk until you suspend,” and Iran says, “we won’t suspend until we talk.”

Perhaps a way out of this is for Iran to sit down with the EU, suspend enrichment, and then the United States could join the talks. I think some substantial diplomacy could resolve many of these issues and pull us back from the brink.

Shank: What motivated you to draft legislation requiring the president to seek congressional approval for any military action on Iran? Why did you feel that kind of preemptive action was necessary?

DeFazio: What motivated me is that I received a very disturbing letter…I first wrote to the president back in December 2001, before the president had confirmed that he would come to Congress for any actions subsequent to Afghanistan. There was already talk about other countries. And I wrote specifically about Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria in 2001, saying that the president would have to come to Congress to get authorization before he could launch a preemptive war, that the Afghanistan post-9/11 authorization did not cover such preemptive wars.

I got a very disturbing letter back after some months from then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, saying that—he had a very creative interpretation of the inherent powers of the commander in chief, defying all history of the country, and all of the works of the founding fathers and all the precedents—the commander in chief could have a war anywhere, anytime, and that he didn’t have to consult with Congress.

We’re trying to remind him of the body of law of the constitution. Article 1 Section 8 is very clear. Congress has the power to declare war. The president has the power to conduct the war, with oversight by Congress under Article 2 Section 2 once the war has begun. He does not have the power to initiate other than a response to an immediate attack.

Shank: If the president offers something to Congress (vis-à-vis war with Iran), do you think that Congress will get behind it in the way they got behind the Iraq request?

DeFazio: Clearly there are members of Congress that feel they were grievously misled. Some, like Walter Jones (R-NC) who voted for the war, now regret that vote and say the president and his administration deceived them. There are others who have said similar things. I think there’s also, in the military, a big split over the wisdom of attempting to preempt their nuclear capabilities. As General Joseph Hoardescribed it to the Democratic conference, he said that basically the Air Force and the Navy are saying that they’re ready to bomb or shoot missiles and the Army and the Marines are saying, “you’re out of your mind, that’s not going to solve the problem, and in all probability you’re going to engage us in another land war and/or you’re going to get retaliatory attacks against our troops.”

He says there’s a raging debate in the Pentagon, a Pentagon that’s pushed by Cheney and others to make plans for an attack on Iran. So there’s tremendous concern.

Shank: What diplomatic opportunities remain available, economic, political, religious, social or otherwise? And given that the United States is pursuing sanctions on Iran, knowing that sanctions in Iraq impacted the populace more than the government, how effective are sanctions on Iran?

DeFazio: Sanctions that are effective are targeted against the government and the leaders. They are led by a right-wing extremist, Ahmadinejad. They had a reformist president who tried to initiate discussions with us. He failed. Ahmadinejad is president but he doesn’t seem to be particularly popular given the mid-term elections. Experts on the region tell me that Iran is the one country in the region where most people in the street still have a favorable opinion of the United States and that there’s concern growing in that country over [Ahmadinejad’s] hard line.

If we were to attack them, we would unify the country behind him. If we put on hugely punitive sanctions that go to everyday life, they could erode our support. But targeted sanctions against things that could benefit their technology, their nuclear capability, the people who are involved in the program, and their elected leaders who are saying very irresponsible things could send a message.

There was going to be Iran language in the emergency supplemental. It was stripped out because of the concern of not being able to pass the timelines. We’ve been told we’re going to move quickly toward a bill on Iran, sending a message to the president. It might well mix some very targeted sanctions with strong language to the president about having to come to Congress to authorize any military action.

Shank: And conditions on diplomacy?

DeFazio: We’re about one foot apart here. Iran says they’ll suspend after we come to the table. And the United States says, “we’ll come to the table after they suspend.” You ought to be able to work that out diplomatically, but apparently Condoleezza Rice is not very good at diplomacy. The EU has said, “if you will suspend, we’ll go to the table.” The EU should go to the table with Iran, they suspend, and then the United States can come to the table. That would be one way out of this box.

Obviously this administration comes very late and very reluctantly to diplomacy. I assume that there’s not much latitude for diplomacy. Dick Cheney seems to be pretty much in charge.

Michael Shank is the government relations officer at George Mason University

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