As tensions with Iran worsen, 2 Va. members of Congress urge diplomacy

The White House’s brinkmanship last week did little to lessen U.S. tensions with Iran, and events from the last few days haven’t helped.

On Monday, President Trump imposed new sanctions on Iran. In response, Iran’s leadership said the sanctions meant “closing the doors of diplomacy.” The president, in turn, responded Tuesday with threats of “great and overwhelming force” and “obliteration.”

It’s an escalating dynamic that’s worrying at least two area politicians who sit on different sides of the aisle: Sen. Tim Kaine and Rep. Rob Wittman, both from Virginia. On Tuesday, both explained why a return to diplomacy is needed.

The risk of “unnecessary war” was first raised, Kaine said, when the U.S. backed out of the product of past diplomacy: the Iran nuclear deal.

“Remember, at the time, President Trump’s then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Adviser Gen. [H.R.] McMaster, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford — all said the deal was working and we should stay in,” Kaine, a Democrat, told WTOP’s Mark Lewis and Debra Feinstein.

“So when we pulled out of the deal, despite that advice, despite the fact that the deal was supported by allies, we basically put Iran in the position where they will have less trust in us going forward.”

Trump’s recent claim that he doesn’t need congressional authorization to attack Iran adds an additional element of urgency, Kaine said.

“I’m very, very worried right now, and we need an effort — probably led by allies — to get both the U.S. and Iran back in a mode where diplomacy is possible,” he said.

While Iran “is doing a lot of things wrong,” Kaine said, it’s in response to this U.S. pressure.

Wittman, a Republican representing Virginia’s 1st District, agreed on the need for diplomacy, while stressing the importance of stopping Iran from producing nuclear arms and launching platforms.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of rhetoric at this particular point,” he said. “But how this will proceed, I am certain, is by back-channel communications between both countries — and hopefully allies in Europe and elsewhere — to reach out to the Iranians to get them to the bargaining table.

“That’s ultimately where this needs to be.”

The Republican applauded Trump for not following through with a strike, as it wouldn’t have been proportionate, he said, with recent attacks on tankers and an unmanned drone. The current sanctions are “impactful,” he said.

But regarding whether Trump could proceed without congressional authorization, Wittman said he, like Kaine, doesn’t believe the 2001 authorization that led to the war on Iraq applies today — “so in any sort of extended effort there, the president does need the permission of Congress,” he said.

Kaine cited the current debate in Congress on a National Defense Authorizing Act, which would include a bipartisan amendment banning money for a war against Iran without congressional authorization.

“We’re trying to get that up for a vote. I think we’re going to get near-unanimous support on the Democratic side, and there are many Republicans who also believe that that is the right principle,” said Kaine.

Wittman spoke to a bipartisan wariness given recent history. The U.S. has to “stand strong,” he said, but it has an obligation to de-escalate.

“I think folks both here in the Congress and the executive branch do not want this to turn into a conflict,” Wittman said, “because we’ve seen what’s happened with those conflicts in the past with both Iraq and Afghanistan, where we still find ourselves today.”

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