But in the poisoned atmosphere that pervades the war debate in Congress, even a simple “sense of the Senate” resolution is much more complicated.
Republicans on Tuesday rallied support for a resolution that would label Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “foreign terrorist organization.”
But while most Democrats say they support the resolution in concept, the level of mistrust between the parties has elevated a nonbinding resolution to a larger discussion about whether Republicans are pushing for military action against Iran.
In fact, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the co-sponsor of the Iran resolution, had to repeatedly point out on Tuesday that “this amendment is not about starting a war with Iran.”
But Democrats simply don’t trust Republicans — or Lieberman — to be the lead congressional voice in making declarative statements about Middle East policy these days.
“I’m being very, very cautious on this,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Reid’s reticence led to a significant amount of rewriting and softening of the resolution — a process that took so long that efforts to reach agreement Tuesday stalled. A vote on the measure could come Wednesday.
Anti-war groups, already consumed by Iraq, tried to mobilize an effort against the Iran resolution, sending out e-mail alerts calling on their members to bombard Senate offices with phone calls opposing the Iran resolution.
The resolution “opens the door for U.S. military operations within Iran, would put our nation on a dangerous and deadly course, and sets conditions for war with Iran,” said Tom Andrews, a former congressman from Maine who is now director of Win Without War, a coalition of anti-war groups. “At a time when U.S. troops are already stuck in Iraq’s unwinnable civil war, it is unconscionable that the United States Senate would seek to escalate tensions with Iran.”
The resolution says nothing about military action or use of force, but the anti-war voices are largely reacting to combative rhetoric about Iran from conservatives rather than the actual legislative language.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, pointed out that “American young men and women … are being killed today by the IRGC.”
That’s the type of talk that gives Democrats heartache, even though Kyl is simply reiterating testimony that Army Gen. David Petraeus gave earlier this month when he stated that Iran is providing support to Iraqi insurgents.
Anti-war groups have also seized on the fact that Lieberman, whose hawkish Iraq views were the main reason for his divorce from the Democratic Party last year, is a key co-sponsor.
The resolution carries no force of law, but it is clearly designed to influence the administration to put the IRGC on the State Department’s official list of foreign terrorist groups, a move that could lead to even tighter sanctions against Iran.
Democrats like Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) worry that language from the resolution could be interpreted by hawks as a mandate for military confrontation.
“This proposal is Dick Cheney’s fondest pipe dream,” Webb said. “It’s not a prescription for success. At best, it’s a deliberate attempt to divert attention from a failed diplomatic policy. At worst, it could be read as a backdoor method of gaining congressional validation for action.”
Webb says that because the Revolutionary Guard is a military arm of the Iranian government, the resolution declaring it a terrorist organization is “tantamount to a declaration of war.”
To some Democrats, the Iran debate, sparked by the headline-grabbing visit by Iran’s volatile President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad t New York this week, is starting to carry too much of an echo of the Iraq debate in the fall of 2002.
Lieberman, for example, used a Tuesday press conference to explain that “for months, the evidence has accumulated” that Iran is supplying weapons to Iraqi insurgents.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the leading supporters of the Iraq war, said he believes “we need to realize we’re in a proxy war with Iran over the outcome in Iraq.”
The House, meanwhile, did not belabor the Iran debate. That chamber on Tuesday easily passed legislation that sanctions foreign companies with U.S. subsidiaries that invest in Iran, particularly in the oil and gas sectors.
The bill would prohibit civilian nuclear cooperation with countries that support Iran’s nuclear program, and expands sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard.