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    US House votes to limit Trump war powers on Iran

    January 10, 2020

    The US House of Representatives has approved a largely symbolic resolution seeking to limit President Donald Trump's ability to make war on Iran.The measure passed the Democratic-run chamber 224-194, but faces an uphill climb in the Republican-held Senate.It aims to mandate congressional approval for any conflict with Iran, except in cases of an imminent attack against the US.Neither the US nor Iran has declared plans for further military action.
    Iran this week fired missiles at Iraqi bases housing American forces, injuring no-one, after the US last week killed a senior Iranian commander in a Baghdad drone strike.Thursday's measure directed the president to "terminate the use of United States Armed Forces" against Iran unless granted congressional authorisation.It offered an exception when necessary to "defend against an imminent armed attack".Even if the House measure cleared Congress, it would not face a potential Trump veto because it is known as a concurrent resolution, which does not require a presidential signature.
    But legal questions remain unresolved as to whether Congress can use a concurrent resolution to bind the president.Media captionIs 2020's Iran crisis already over?The Democratic leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said earlier on Thursday she did not believe Mr Trump had made the US safer after last week's drone strike that killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California called the resolution a "meaningless vote", while Republican House Whip Steve Scalise dismissed it as "a press release″.Mr Trump, a Republican, had tweeted that he hoped "all House Republicans will vote against Crazy Nancy Pelosi's War Powers Resolution".
    He also made a new claim about the intelligence behind the air raid, telling reporters at the White House the Iranians were "looking to blow up our embassy" in Iraq.The war powers resolution gathered momentum after a congressional briefing on Wednesday by administration officials seeking to justify the attack.Following the briefing by the secretary of state, defence secretary and CIA director, two Republicans senators broke ranks.Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky said they might back a similar resolution in the Senate seeking to limit the president's war powers.Their potential defection raises the chances for the measure in the upper chamber, where Republicans hold a 53-47 majority.
    Mr Lee told reporters it was "the worst briefing I've seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I've served".He said the administration officials had asked them not even to debate the president's authority to strike Iran. He described their approach as "un-American" and "insane".But most Republicans lawmakers have stood by the president.Doug Collins of Georgia claimed Democrats were "in love with terrorists" and grieving more for Soleimani than for US service personnel killed by the Iranian commander."They mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families who are the ones who suffered under Soleimani," he told Fox News.
    Iran's attack: Is there more to come?
    Jonathan Marcus
    Diplomatic correspondent
    @Diplo1on Twitter
    8 January 2020
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    Image copyrightREUTERS
    Image caption
    Millions of Iranians turned out for Qasem Soleimani's funeral
    Given the significance of General Qasem Soleimani and the passions that his killing aroused, Iran's military strike against US bases in Iraq was a modest response.

    Iran is claiming to have inflicted significant US casualties but this does not appear to be the case. The US says that its radars provided warning of the attacks and the Iranian missiles appear to have landed in areas where there were no US forces present.

    The question now is what happens next. Is this the end of Iran's retaliation? Only time will tell.

    Which bases were targeted?
    Latest reaction after the attack
    Any dramatic Iranian response - the assassination of a high-ranking US officer for example - would take time and depend upon both detailed planning and opportunity.

    Iran said that it would respond. It said that the response would come from the Iranian military and not an ally or proxy. And in using missiles, fired from within Iran itself, Tehran has done what it said it would.

     

    Media captionThis footage, reportedly of the missile attack, was shown on Iranian state TV
    Indeed the initial mood music from both Tehran and Washington suggests the potential for de-escalation.

    President Trump's initial tweet was mild and seemingly reassuring about the absence of US casualties. The Iranians too seem to be signalling - for all the continuing threats - that this could be the moment for both sides to pause and take breath. It is clear that neither the US nor Iran, for all their rhetoric, want a wider conflict.

    So this could be a moment to try to reduce tensions. But this is just a dangerous spike in an unfolding competition between Iran and the US for regional influence. It is hard to see Iranian policy changing. It is still going to try to secure its regional goals, not least, the departure of US forces from Iraq. The Soleimani killing has weakened the US position there. US officials insist that they have no desire or reason to pull out.

    How did US-Iranian ties get here? A quick guide
    Voices from Iran: 'Qasem Soleimani did not deserve such a fate'
    The Iraqi parliament has called for a withdrawal of US forces, but the resolution has no legal weight. Iraq's current political difficulties mean any formal decision on the future of the US presence could be some time away. But many analysts believe that Washington's position in Iraq is more tenuous than it was a few weeks ago.

    It is also important to remember that this episode of direct confrontation between Tehran and Washington was preceded by a long-running Iranian campaign over many years to hamper US activities in the region. Indeed it was rocket attacks from Iran's proxies - a local Shia militia - against US bases in Iraq that formed the prelude to this recent crisis. This then raises a whole series of questions.

    In killing the Quds Force leader Gen Soleimani has the US now established any measure of deterrence? Will Tehran seek to constrain its allies in the region to avert further attacks against US bases or interests? And if not, will Iranian-inspired attacks resume in due course? What will President Trump do then?

    So is this crisis over? This could be the end of one particularly dangerous episode, but the bitter regional tensions and strategic rivalry remain. Gen Soleimani's death is going to cast a shadow over the interactions between the US and Iran for many years to come.

    The US, Iran and Qasem Soleimani story explained in 400 words
    7 January 2020
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    Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
    Image caption
    Qasem Soleimani was considered the second most powerful man in Iran before his death
    The assassination by the US of Iran's most powerful general caused tensions between the two countries to soar, raising fears of an all-out war.

    But what lies at the root of the crisis? Here are the basics.

    The US and Iran have long been foes.

    Problems can be traced to at least 1979, when Iran's US-backed shah was overthrown and the country became an Islamic republic.

    That year, amidst the fallout from the revolution, dozens of Americans were taken hostage inside the US embassy in the capital Tehran. Relations have been frosty ever since.

    There were signs of a diplomatic thaw in 2015, when Iran agreed a landmark deal to limit its nuclear programme, allaying international concerns. It did so in return for the lifting of tough economic sanctions.

    But the election of US President Donald Trump the following year posed a challenge. He hated the nuclear accord, which he branded "the worst deal ever negotiated".

    In 2018, he abandoned it altogether and reinstated US sanctions to force Iran's leaders to agree to a new deal - something they rejected, even as the Iranian economy was sent into a deep recession.

    Image copyrightREUTERS
    Image caption
    The US blamed Iran for a number of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last year
    Mr Trump stepped up the pressure in May 2019 by applying secondary sanctions on countries that continued to do business with Iran.

    Relations further deteriorated when six oil tankers were sabotaged in the Gulf of Oman in May and June. Washington accused Iran of being behind these attacks. Iran denied this.

    In July, Tehran started suspending some of the commitments it had made under the nuclear deal.

    Then, in late December, the US blamed an Iranian-backed militia for a rocket attack which killed an American contractor in northern Iraq.

    Washington retaliated by bombing bases associated with the militia in Iraq and Syria, killing at least 25 fighters.

    These bombings sparked a backlash in Iraq. The US embassy in the capital, Baghdad, was attacked by crowds of protesters.

    President Trump blamed Iran for orchestrating the attack and warned it would "pay a very big price".

     

    Media captionWho was Qasem Soleimani?
    On 3 January, Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport.

    The general - who controlled Iran's proxy forces across the Middle East - was regarded as a terrorist by the Americans, who alleged he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops and was plotting "imminent" attacks.

    Iran vowed "severe revenge" for his death and said two days later that it had abandoned the last limit on its enrichment of uranium imposed by the nuclear deal.

    Mr Trump, meanwhile, warned the US would respond in the event of retaliation "perhaps in a disproportionate manner".

    Iran attack: Who are the winners and losers in the crisis?
    By Dr Sanam Vakil
    Chatham House
    9 January 2020
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    Image copyrightNURPHOTO
    Image caption
    Protestors in Tehran take part in an anti-US rally following the killing of Qasem Soleimani
    The US killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iran's retaliatory missile attack have heightened fears of a conflict with far-reaching implications.

    Who loses or gains from the crisis could change rapidly depending on what the US and Iran do next.

    So, who are the winners and losers?

    Iran
    Despite the loss of such a powerful military figure, Iran could be a short-term beneficiary of Qasem Soleimani's killing.

    The general's death, and the massive funeral processions that followed, have allowed Tehran to shift public attention away from a violent government crackdown on protests over rising petrol prices in November.

    It also allows Iran to demonstrate its ability to rally at a time of crisis, with its notoriously divided political elite pulling together.

    Iran has been under economic pressure from renewed US sanctions following President Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement in 2018.

     

    Media captionFeeling the squeeze: Iran sanctions explained
    Last year, the situation escalated after Iran downed a US drone and detained shipping tankers. It was also accused of sponsoring missile attacks such as September's strike on Saudi oil facilities - something it denied.

    Iran has already hit back at America with a missile strike targeting US troops in Iraq. The country may benefit if it drags out any further retaliation and instead continues to play on public sympathy and anxiety over what comes next.

    However, if the country does take further action, it may no longer be seen as a winner.

    Depending on where and how Iran seeks to further avenge Soleimani's death, Tehran, a lesser military power, could find itself in a damaging military cycle of action and reaction with the US.

    Already subject to heavy sanctions and under pressure to comply with the nuclear agreement, continued escalation could further isolate Iran.

    US troops targeted with ballistic missiles
    A quick guide to the story so far
    The US
    The Trump administration may have succeeded in denting Iran's military prowess, while potentially boosting the President's chance of re-election in November.

    It has also sent a message of strength and solidarity to allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

    Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
    Image caption
    US President Donald Trump said Iran appeared to be "standing down" after missile strikes on US troop bases in Iraq
    But if it is drawn into a tit-for-tat military action this could increase oil prices, lead to further loss of American life and spark another long-running regional war.

    This could have ramifications for many other nations in the Middle East and beyond.

    Shia forces in Iraq
    In the short run, Iran-backed Shia militia in Iraq could benefit from the current crisis.

    Over the past few months, the Iraqi government has been the target of many protests over Iran's influence in the country, alongside complaints of poor governance and corruption.

    Image copyrightREUTERS
    Image caption
    The protesters represent a cross-section of society in Iraq
    These militias - and the rest of Iraq's political establishment - are using the death of Soleimani to win back lost influence and legitimise their need to remain in the country.

    The pledge to expel US troops from Iraq has long been a rallying cry of these groups and plays into the hand of their leaders.

    It also creates a security vacuum for terrorist groups such as IS and Al Qaeda to exploit.

    Israel
    Iran and Israel have long been in conflict over their interests in the Middle East, and Iran's desire to remove the Jewish state.

    From Israel's perspective, many threats still remain. These include Iran's support for Israel's adversaries such as Lebanon militant group Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

    Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
    However, the death of Soleimani does indicate America's growing intention to contain Iran.

    In Israel, this is likely to be seen as a positive step that will benefit its security interests against Iran and the groups it supports.

    "Israel stands with the United States in its just struggle for peace, security and self-defence," the country's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the attack.

    Protesters in the Middle East
    The looming threat of conflict will give Middle Eastern governments an excuse to curb protests throughout the region.

    In particular, the recent protests in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran over issues such as unemployment and corruption will be contained using the justification of national security.

    Image copyrightREUTERS
    Image caption
    Protesters in Lebanon have been complained of inequality and corruption
    Governments could even go one step further and use the looming crisis to justify crackdowns on political activists and put the brakes on any attempts at political reform.

    Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates
    Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are in a precarious position.

    Both were directly affected by last year's shipping attacks in the Straits of Hormuz, and strikes on two major Saudi oil facilities, largely thought to be the work of Iran or Iranian-backed forces. Iran itself denied any involvement.

    Image copyrightREUTERS
    Image caption
    The US blamed Iran for a number of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman last year
    In response, the UAE attempted to ease the situation with Tehran, while Saudi Arabia has continued to support maximum pressure from Washington.

    Since Soleimani's killing, both countries have called for calm and de-escalation, with the Saudi defence minister travelling to Washington for talks with the Trump administration.

    But their geographic proximity to Iran and their history of tensions makes them vulnerable to possible Iranian attack.

    Europe
    Already struggling to sustain the fragile Iran nuclear agreement, Europe remains in an awkward middle ground between the US and Iran.

    The UK was not given advance warning of the drone strike by Washington, suggesting ongoing transatlantic tensions or at least lack of communication.

    At the same time, having co-operated in the fight against IS, several European countries with troops in Iraq are liable to be drawn into the crossfire there if Iran chooses a military response.

    The killing of Soleimani should ultimately remind us that the governance and regional stability issues that sparked the Arab Spring protests almost a decade ago remain unresolved.

    About this piece

    This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.

    Dr Sanam Vakil is deputy head and senior research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. Follow her @SanamVakil

    Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, describes itself as an independent policy institute helping to build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

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