CD208: The Brink of the Iran War

CD208: The Brink of the Iran War

Feb 9, 2020

2020 began with a bombing in Iraq – ordered by President Trump – which killed one of Iran’s highest ranking military officers. In this episode, we take a close look at the recent history of our relationship with the Iranian government in order to understand how we started the year on the brink of another war. Also, since our President is a total wildcard, we look at what Congress authorized for 2020 in terms of war with Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

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Bill: S.1790 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, December 20, 2019

  • Sec. 1208: Eliminates the authorization for payments that started in late 2016 “for damage, personal injury, or death that is incident to combat operations of the armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen.
  • Sec. 1210A: Allows the Defense Department to give the State Department and USAID money for “stabilization activities” in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia and authorizes an additional $100 million for this year (bringing the limit up to $450 million)
  • Sec. 1217: Allows the Defense Secretary to use War on Terror money for paying “any key cooperating nation (other than Pakistan)” for logistical, military, or other support that nation gives to our military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria.
  • Sec. 1221: Withholds at least half of the $645 million authorized by the 2015 NDAA for “military and other security forces of or associated with the Government of Iraq, including Kurdish and tribal security forces or other local security forces” for “training, equipment, logistics support, supplies, and services, stipends, facility and infrastructure repair and renovation, and sustainment” until the DoD submits a report that includes an estimate of the funding anticipated to support the Iraqi Security Forces through September 2025. The report also needs to include how much and what kind of assistance if being given to forces in Iraq by the Government of Iran. Also, a new stipulation is added saying that our military assistance authorized since 2015 “may only be exercised in consultation with the Government of Iraq.”
  • Sec. 1222: Changes the authorization from 2015 that allowed the Defense Department to train, equip, supply, give money to and construct facilities for “vetted elements of the Syria opposition” so that the “opposition” is no longer allowed to get the money or training. The new language eliminates all mentions of the “opposition” groups and deletes “promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria” from the list of authorized purposes. The new language focuses specifically on providing assistance to combat the Islamic State and al Qaeda. It also limits the kinds of weapons that can be given to Syria groups to “small arms or light weapons” (there is a way for the Defense Secretary to waive this) and it limits the amount that can be spent on construction projects to $4 million per project or $20 million total.
  • Sec. 1223: Eliminates the authority for the Defense Department to fund “operations and activities of security assistance teams in Iraq” and removes the authority to pay for “construction and renovation of facilities”. The law still allows $30 million for the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq (a $15 million funding cut). The authorization will then sunset 90 days after enactment (mid March 2020). The OSCI can’t get more than $20 million until they appoint a Senior Defense Official to oversee the office, develop a staffing plan “similar to that of other security cooperation offices in the region”, and they create a five-year “security assistance roadmap” that enables “defense institution building and reform.”
  • Sec. 1284: “Nothing in this Act, or any amendment made by this Act, may be construed to authorize the use of military force, including the use of military force against Iran or any other country.”
  • Sec. 5322: Creates a “Foreign Malign Influence Response Center” under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which will “be comprised of analysts from all elements of the intelligence community, including elements with diplomatic an law enforcement functions” and will be the “primary organization” for analyzing all intelligence “pertaining to foreign malign influence.” The foreign countries that will specifically be reported on are, in this order, Russia, Iran, North Korea, China, and “any other country”. “Foreign malign influence” means “any hostile effort undertaken by, at the direction of, or on behalf of or with the substantial support of, the government of a covered foreign country with he objective of influencing, through overt or covert means the (A) political, military, economic or other policies or activities of the United States Government… including any election within the United States or (B) the public opinion within the United States.”
  • Sec. 5521: “It is the sense of Congress that, regardless of the ultimate number of United States military personnel deployed to Syria, it is a vital interest of the United States to prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah, and other Iranian backed forces from establishing a strong and enduring presence in Syria that can be used to project power in the region and threaten the United States and its allies, including Israel.”A report is required within six months that will include how Iran is militarily training and funding the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad and the threat that Iran’s forces pose to “areas of northeast Syria that are currently controlled by local partner forces of the United States.” The report also must outline “how Iran and Iranian backed forces seek to enhance the long-term influence of such entities in Syria through non-military means such as purchasing strategic real estate in Syria, constructing Shia religious centers in schools, securing loyalty from Sunni tribes in exchange for material assistance, and inducing the Assad government to open Farsi language department at Syrian universities.” The report must also include “How Iran is working with the Russian Federation, Turkey, and other countries to increase the influence of Iran in Syria.” The NDAA assumes the Iranian goals in Syria are “protecting the Assad government, increasing the regional influence of Iran, threatening Israel from a more proximate location, building weapon production facilities and other military infrastructure, and securing a land bridge to connect to run through Iraq and Syria to the stronghold of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.” The report also must include descriptions of “the efforts of Iran to transfer advanced weapons to Hisballah and to establish a military presence in Syria has led to direct and repeated confrontations with Israel”, “the intelligence and military support that the United States provides to Israel to help Israel identify and appropriately address specific threats to Israel from Iran and Iranian-backed forces in Syria”, “The threat posed to Israel and other allies of the United States in the middle east resulting from the transfer of arms to… Hezbollah”, and “Iranian expenditures in the previous calendar year on military and terrorist activities outside the country, including the amount of such expenditures with respect to each of Hizballah, Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hamas, and proxy forces in Iraq and Syria.”
  • Sec. 6706: The 2017 Intelligence Authorization (Section 501) created a committee made up of the Director of National Intelligence, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury, Attorney General, Secretary of Energy, FBI Director, and the heads of “each of the other elements of the intelligence community” for the purposes of countering “active measures by Russia to exert covert influence over peoples and government by exposing falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism, and assassinations carried out by the security services are political elites of the Russian Federation or their proxies.” This NDAA adds China, Iran, North Korea, “or other nation state” to the target list.
  • Sec. 6729: Orders an Intelligence Assessment into the revenue sources of North Korea, specifically requiring inquiries into “(1) Trade in coal, iron, and iron ore. (2) Fishing rights in North Korea’s territorial waters (3) Trade in gold, titanium ore, vanadium ore, copper, silver, nickel, zinc, and rare earth minerals.” They also want to know what banking institutions are processing North Korean financial transactions.
  • Sec. 7412:  Effective starting in June 2020, the President “shall” enact sanctions on a “foreign person” if that person gives money, material or technical support to the Government of Syria, is a military contractor working for the Government of Syria, the Russian government, or the Iranian government, sells items that “significantly facilitates the maintenance or expansion of the Government of Syria’s domestic production of natural has, petroleum, or petroleum products”, or “directly or indirectly, provides significant construction or engineering services to the Government of Syria.” If the sanctions are violated, the President “shall” use his power to “block and prohibit all transactions in property and interests in property of the foreign person” if that property “comes within the United States, are come within the possession or control of United States person.” The foreign persons will also be ineligible for visas into the United States except to permit the United States to comply with the agreement regarding the headquarters of the United Nations or to assist with US law-enforcement.
  • Sec. 7402: Statement of Policy: …”to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful co-existence with its neighbors.”
  • Sec. 7411: Gives the Secretary of the Treasury until late June to determine “whether reasonable grounds exist for concluding that the Central Bank of Syria is a financial institution of primary money laundering concern.” If it’s a yes, the Secretary of the Treasury “shall” impose “special measures” that could require banks to retain more records about transactions in Syria, give the government information about the people who conduct financial transactions with people in Syria, or prohibit US banks from opening accounts for Syrian banks.
  • Sec. 7413: Orders the President to submit a strategy to Congress by June 2020 to “deter foreign persons from entering into contracts related to reconstruction” in areas of Syria under the control of the Government of Syria, the Government of Russia, or the Government of Iran.
  • Sec. 7424: Authorizes the Secretary of State to “provide assistance to support entities that are conducting criminal investigations, supporting prosecutions, or collecting evidence” against those that have committed war crimes in Syria. The assistance can’t be given as long as President Bashar al-Assad is in power, can’t be used to build judicial capacities of the Syrian government, or for prosecutions in the domestic courts of Syria.
  • Sec. 7438: This title (Sections 7401-7438) sunsets in 5 years.

Bill: H.Con.Res.83 – Directing the President pursuant to section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran., January 9, 2020

Bill: H. R. 1158 – Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 GPO, January 3, 2019

  • Sec. 9007:  No funds from this year’s funding or any other law can’t be used to “establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Forces in Iraq” or to “exercise United States control over any oil resource of Iraq”

Bill: H.R.3107 – Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, August 5, 1996


Additional Resources

Sound Clip Sources

Press Conference: Trump tells GOP donors that Soleimani was ‘saying bad things’ before strike, The Hill, January 10, 2020

Hearing: From Sanctions to the Soleimani Strike to Escalation: Evaluating the Administration’s Iran Policy, United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, January 14, 2020

Watch on Youtube Watch on CSPAN


  • DID NOT SHOW: Mike Pompeo
  • Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations
  • Avril Haines, Columbia University (formerly NSA and CIA)
  • Stephen Hadley

44:55 Richard Haass: Here, I would highlight the American decision in 2018 to exit the 2015 nuclear agreement, the JCPOA, and the decision to introduce significant sanctions against Iran. These sanctions constituted a form of economic warfare. Iran was not in a position to respond in kind and instead instituted a series of military actions meant to make the United States and others pay a price for these sanctions and therefore to conclude they needed to be removed. It is also important, I believe, to point out here that the United States did not provide a diplomatic alternative to Iran when it imposed these sanctions. This was the context in which the targeted killing of Qassem Suleimani took place. This event needs to be assessed from two vantage points. One is legality. It would have been justified to attack Suleimani if he was involved in mounting a military action that was imminent. If there is evidence that can responsibly be made public supporting that these criteria were met of imminence, it should be. If, however, it turns out criteria were not met, that what took place was an action of choice rather than the necessity, I fear it will lead to an open ended conflict between the United States and Iran. Fought in many places with many tools and few red lines that will be observed. The President tweeted yesterday that the question of this imminence doesn’t really matter. I would respectfully disagree. Imminence is central to the concept of preemption, which is treated in international law as a legitimate form of self defense. Preventive attacks though are something very different. They are mounted against a gathering threat rather than an imminent one, and a world of regular preventive actions would be one in which conflict was prevalent.

47:20 Richard Haass: First, there were other, and I believe better ways to reestablish deterrence with Iran. Secondly, the killing interrupted what I believe were useful political dynamics in both Iran and Iraq. Thirdly, U.S.-Iraqi ties were deeply strained. Fourthly, we’ve been forced to send more forces to the region rather than make them available elsewhere. Fifthly, given all worldwide challenges, I do not believe it is in our strategic interest to have a new war in the middle East. And six, Iran has already announced plans to take steps at odds with the JCPOA, which will shrink the window it needs to build a nuclear weapon if it decides to do so. And if this happens, it will present both the United States and Israel with difficult and potentially costly choices.

50:16 Richard Haass: Let me just make a few recommendations and I know my time is growing short. One, the United States should work closely with its allies and other signatories of the JCPOA to put together the outlines of a new agreement. Call it JCPOA 2.0 and present Iran with a new deal. It would establish longer term or better yet open-ended limits on Iran, nuclear and missile programs. In exchange for sanctions relief, Congress should approve any such agreement to remove the concern that this pack could be easily undone by any President, and such initiatives should emerge from consultation with allies. Our policy toward Iran has become overly unilateral and is less effective for it.

1:02:50 Stephen Hadley: The problem was that the strike occurred in Iraq. The fear of becoming the central battleground in a military confrontation between the United States and Iran is being used to justify calls for the expulsion of us forces from Iraq. But a U.S. withdrawal would only reward Kata’ib Hezbollah’s campaign of violence, strengthen the uranium backed militias, weaken the Iraqi government, undermine Iraqi sovereignty, and jeopardize the fight against ISIS. A terrible outcome for both the United States and Iraq. To keep U.S. Forces in Iraq, Iraqi authorities will have to manage the domestic political fallout from the strike on Suleimani. U.S. Administration and the Congress can help by making public statements reaffirming that America respects the sovereignty and independence of Iraq that U.S. Forces are in Iraq to train Iraqi security forces and to help them protect the Iraqi people from a resurgent ISIS that the United States will coordinate with the Iraqi government on matters involving the U.S. Troop presence, that so long as U.S. Troops and diplomats in Iraq are not threatened, America’s confrontation with Iran will not be played out on Iraqi territory, and that the United States supports the aspirations of the Iraqi people for a government that can meet their needs and expectations, and is free of corruption, sectarianism and outside influence.

1:49:30 Richard Haass: The other thing I think you heard from all three of us is the importance of repairing the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. I mean, think about it. Qasem Soleimani’s principle goal was to drive the United States out of Iraq. Why in the world would we want to facilitate his success there after his death? We ought to make sure that doesn’t happen. And Steve Hadley gave, I thought, a lot of good ideas about ways we could signal almost to help the Iraqi government manage the Iraqi politics. We could also look at some creative things. When I was in the Pentagon years ago, when we were building what became Central Command, we used to look at the idea of presence without stationing. There’s ways to have a regular force presence without necessarily having forces be permanent. This may help the Iraqi government manage the politics of it without a serious diminuition of our capabilities.

1:58:20 Richard Haass: I think there’s a fundamental difference between taking out a member of a terrorist organization and taking out an individual who is, who was an official of a nation state, who happens to use terrorist organizations to promote what the state sees as its agenda. I’m not saying it’s necessarily wrong, I’m saying it’s a big step. We’ve crossed a line here. So I think one thing this committee needs to think about is when it looks at AUMF’s, none is on the books that allows us to do this as best I understand. So I think it’s a legitimate question for this committee to say, do we need to think about an AUMF towards Iran that deals with this set of scenarios, where Iran would use military force to promote its ends, and also with the one that both Steve Hadley and I have talked about here, about the gathering threat on the Iranian nuclear side.

2:07:50 Avril Haines: Clearly the strike had an enormous impact on our relationship with Iraq. Iraq has come out and indicated that they did not provide consent for this particular strike on their territory. And it has brought the parliament to the point where they’ve actually passed to vote calling for the U.S. Forces to leave. And we’ve seen that the Prime Minister has indicated that in fact, they want a delegation to talk about leaving Iraq. And I think, as Dr. Haass noted, this is in many respects exactly what Solemani had wanted. And as a consequence, we’re now in a position where I think it will be likely that it is unsustainable for us to have the presence that we’ve had. I hope that’s not true. I hope that we can in fact, get through this period with them and that their domestic politics don’t erupt in such a way that it makes it impossible for us to stay.

2:42:15 Rep. Adriano Espaillat: My question to you individually, this is a yes or no answer question, is whether or not you feel you gathered enough information or evidence, that from the inspectors or otherwise that you feel that Iran complied with the provisions established by the JCPOA. Mr Hass, do you feel that they complied? Yes or no? Richard Haass: Based on everything I’ve read, the international inspectors made the case that Iran was in compliance. Rep. Adriano Espaillat: Ms. Haines? Avril Haines: Yeah, same. Rep. Adriano Espaillat: Mr. Hadley? Stephen Hadley: So far as I know, yes.

Interview: Pompeo on Soleimani Justification: I Don’t Know Who Used “Imminent Threat” First, “But It Reflects What We Saw”, Bret Baier with Fox News Channel Interviews Mike Pompeo, RealClear Politics, January 13, 2020


  • Mike Pompeo
  • Bret Baier

Mike Pompeo: Not only when I was CIA director did I see the history and then what was the current activity for the first year and a half of this administration. But when I was a member of Congress serving on the house intelligence committee, I saw too, Suleimani’s been a bad actor for decades in the region. He has the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hand. He’s killed, or contributed to the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria, Muslims, mostly throughout the region. This was a bad actor. And when we came to the point where we could see that he was plotting imminent attacks in the region to threaten Americans, a big attack, we recommended to the President he take this action. The president made the right decision.

Press Conference: Pompeo Imposes Sanctions on Iran, Sticking to Assertion That U.S. Faced Imminent Threat, White House Press Briefing, The New York Times, January 10, 2020

Mike Pompeo: We had specific information on an imminent threat, and that threat included attacks on U.S. embassies, period. Full stop.

Reporter: What’s your definition of imminent? Mike Pompeo: This was going to happen, and American lives were at risk, and we would have been culpably negligent, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, that we would’ve been culpably negligent had we not recommended the President that he take this action with Qasam Suleimani. He made the right call and America is safer as a result of that. I don’t know exactly which minute, we don’t know exactly which day it would have been executed, but it was very clear. Qasam Suleimani himself was plotting a broad, large scale attack against American interests, and those attacks were imminent.

Press Conference: The most troubling part of Mike Lee’s broadside against the Trump administrations Iran briefing, The Washington Post, January 8, 2020

Mike Lee: They’re appearing before a coordinate branch of government, a coordinate branch of government responsible for their funding, for their confirmation, for any approval of any military action they might undertake. They had to leave after 75 minutes while they’re in the process of telling us that we need to be good little boys and girls and run along and not debate this in public. I find that absolutely insane. I think it’s unacceptable. And so I don’t know what they had in mind. I went in there hoping to get more specifics as far as the factual, legal, moral justification for what they did. I’m still undecided on that issue in part because we never got to the details. Every time we got close, they’d say, well, we can’t discuss that here because it’s really sensitive. We’re in a skiff. We’re in a secure underground bunker where all electronic devices have to be checked at the door and they still refuse to tell us. I find that really upsetting.

Interview: CNN Interview with Mike Pompeo The Hill, January 3, 2020

Mike Pompeo: We know it was imminent. This was an intelligence based assessment that drove our decision making process.

Hearing: Full Committee Hearing: “U.S. Policy in Syria and the Broader Region” House Armed Services Committee, December 11, 2019


  • Mark Esper – Secretary of Defense
  • General Mark Milley – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

25:20 Mark Esper: Since May of this year, nearly 14,000 U.S. military personnel have deployed to the region to serve as a tangible demonstration of our commitment to our allies and our partners. These additional forces are not intended to signal an escalation, but rather to reassure our friends and buttress our efforts at deterrence.

25:40 Mark Esper: We are also focused on internationalizing the response to Iran’s aggression by encouraging increased burden sharing and cooperation with allies and partners from around the world. The International Maritime Security Construct, which protects freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, and the more nascent integrated air and missile defense effort led by Saudi Arabia are two such examples. Through these activities, we are sending a clear message to Iran that the international community will not tolerate its malign activities.

Hearing: Review of the FY2020 Budget Request for the State Department

Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, April 9, 2019

Watch on CSPAN


  • Mike Pompeo

15:15 Sen. Lindsay Graham (SC): Do you agree with me that having a stabilizing force in Northeastern Syria will prevent Iran from coming down and taking over their oil? Mike Pompeo: It is an important part of our overall Middle East strategy, including our counter-Iran strategy. Sen. Lindsay Graham (SC): So, containing Iran, would include you having a policy in Syria that would keep them from benefiting from our withdrawal. Mike Pompeo: That’s right. It’s one piece of it. Yes. Sen. Lindsay Graham (SC): Okay.

Hearing: State Department Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Request

House Foreign Affairs Committee, May 23, 2018


  • Mike Pompeo

18:05 Mike Pompeo: On Monday I unveiled a new direction for the President’s Iran strategy. We will apply unprecedented financial pressure; coordinate with our DOD colleagues on deterrents efforts; support the Iranian people, perhaps most importantly; and hold out the prospect for a new deal with Iran. It simply needs to change its behavior.

Speech: Pompeo vows U.S., Mideast allies will ‘crush’ Iranian operatives around the world, Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018

Mike Pompeo: We will apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime. The sanctions are going back in full effect and new ones are coming. These will indeed end up being the strongest sanctions in history when we are complete.

Mike Pompeo: As President Trump said two weeks ago, he is ready, willing and able to negotiate a new deal. But the deal is not the objective. Our goal is to protect the American people.

Speech: Bolton: ‘Our Goal Should Be Regime Change in Iran’ Fox News, January 1, 2018

John Bolton: Our goal should be regime change in Iran.


Watch on CSPAN


  • Reuel Marc Gerecht: CIA Officer who became a director at the Project for a New American Century. Also a former fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Supported the Afghanistan regime change and Iraq regime change. Currently a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, which was founded after 9/11 and it funds “experts” who pushed Congress to fight the “war on terror”.

1:30:25 Reuel Marc Gerecht: Again, I have nothing against sanctions. I think there are lots of sanctions the United States should tighten. I’m in favor of most of what we might call central bank sanctions, the Iran oil free zone. There are lots of different things you can do, but again, I just emphasize the people who rule around Iran rose up essentially through killing people. They have maintained a coercive system. It’s become more coercive with time, not less. They do not respond in the same rational economic ways that we do. Iran would not look like the country it is today if they were concerned about the bottom line. So, I don’t think that you are going to really intimidate these people, get their attention unless you shoot somebody. It’s a pretty blunt, but I don’t think you get to get around it. I think for example, if we believe that the Guard Corps is responsible for this operation, then you should hold Qasem Soleimani responsible. Qasem Soleimani travels a lot. He’s all over the place. Go get him. Either try to capture him or kill him.

1:32:10 Reuel Marc Gerecht: You could aggressively harrass many of their operations overseas. There’s no doubt about that. But you would have to have a consensus to do that. I mean, the need is to say the White House, the CIA would have to be on board to do that. You would have to have the approval to do that. We all know it’s Washington, D C these things are difficult to do. So you may find out that this type of covert action is actually much more difficult to do than going after, say Qasem Soleimani when he travels.

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Music Presented in This Episode

Intro & Exit: Tired of Being Lied To by David Ippolito (found on Music Alley by mevio)

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