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As rhetoric builds, Democrats in Congress lie low on Iran

John Byrne
Published: Tuesday April 18, 2006

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Military option remains on table, aides say

In private conversations with RAW STORY, senior aides to leading Democratic members of Congress in both houses have indicated an uncertain approach to resolving the standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As the Bush Administration ups rhetoric and news reports signal the Pentagon has developed detailed plans for a possible military strike, the opposition party’s leading lights have remained silent. Democratic insiders say they don’t want to rush to judgment without getting the facts, but the issue has received scant attention from Democrats in Congress.

Most Democratic offices declined to comment for this story. Many said they couldn’t comment because their congressperson was away for Easter recess, though they were eager to talk about other issues or criticize the Bush Administration’s approach. Aides said they weren’t able to speak on the record or on background, and even some who have often commented anonymously in RAW STORY articles did not return calls for comment.

There is no formal consensus among Democrats on Iran. One Democrat – Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) – has endorsed the possibility of using airstrikes to “delay” Iran’s nuclear program, though most are more vague, saying they won’t take “any options” off the table. And they appear to be serious: Not even the Democrats’ liberal heavyweight in the House, Nancy Pelosi, has ruled out the possibility of using nuclear weapons, keeping "all options" on the table, an aide said.

Most aides refused to speculate whether Democrats might support a military operation in Iran. Several aides acknowledged, however, that some Democrats in Congress could support a military strike. If it was presented with clear and damning evidence of an Iranian nuclear program, aides said, Bush might be able to get Congressional authorization for the use of force.

Such aides were careful to emphasize that the Bush Administration provided faulty intelligence on Iraq. Any military action Democrats supported, one aide said, would not include the use of nuclear weapons.

That said, most Democrats view any military rhetoric on Iran as a tool to bring the Iranians to the bargaining table.

One aide to a leading Democratic senator disagreed with the contention that Congress would ever support an attack on Iran.

“Even the neocon nuts in the White House know they’d get laughed out of the Senate if they asked for a vote to go to war in Iran,” the aide asserted. “There’s not a single hardline Republican in the Senate who would vote with them after their bad intelligence and botched Iraq war planning.”

Asked about Democratic strategy on Iran, the aide said, “The strategy is simple: Give the Republicans enough rope and they’ll hang themselves.”

One veteran Democratic aide described Iran as the most urgent security problem in the Middle East – even more serious than Iraq.

“I think without a doubt Iran is the main security challenge in the Middle East, from a country perspective,” the aide said. “Obviously with Iraq and the number of US soldiers we have [there] that is a serious challenge. But when you look at the global politics of it, Iran is the problem in the Middle East, and for more than five years the Bush Administration has failed to respond.”

The difficulty in obtaining comment from Democrats illustrates an elemental schizophrenia in the party’s foreign policy message. Democrats are caught on the fence – they must satisfy an anti-war base while at the same time projecting a hardline image on national security matters which will increase the attractiveness of Democratic candidates to independent-leaning voters in the 2006 midterm elections.

Leading Democrat warns of “disinformation”

Not all Democrats are silent on Iran. Perhaps the most outspoken and most cogent voice is Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Speaking specifically about Iran to the Council on Foreign Relations in early April, Harman portrayed US intelligence on Iran as a potential minefield. (Harman's full remarks, along with that of former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, are available here.)

“I think that some of the intelligence I see -- and I did ask to see the intelligence case on Iran -- is not close to where it needs to be,” Harman said. “I'm not going to reveal the classified information, but I did have a reaction in the briefing I got that some of this might be disinformation, not information. And I know we are passing around our intelligence case, the administration is, to the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and some of our allies.”

As the leading Democrat on the Committee, Harman is one of only four Democratic members of Congress who receive top-level briefings from US intelligence agencies. This is part of the party’s struggle – one senior Democratic aide said that nearly all Democrats were in the dark because of their lack of access to the latest intelligence.

Neither the House nor the Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled hearings on Iranian intelligence oversight, though both committees say they have interest in doing so.

Harman’s discussion of Iran suggests she believes the Bush Administration may be putting forth questionable intelligence.

“All I'm saying is I remain skeptical,” she told an intelligence panel. “Lots of unanswered questions and conjecture that I have is that if I were Iran and I wanted to put out disinformation, it might look a lot like what our government is claiming is information.... I want to be absolutely sure that we base decisions, especially tough decisions like what are the next steps with Iran -- and I surely hope they are diplomatic because I think those are our best options -- on pristine and pure intelligence, or the closest we can get to that.”

“I have no question that Iran is a dangerous place, so don't let me tell you that there's any doubt in my mind,” Harman added. “The issue is how capable are they, and what are the real intentions of Iran's leaders? And I think the jury's out on both of those.”