The ironies of Hagel’s ‘no’ vote on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards
“We were already in two wars at the time and ... so I voted against it. That's why I voted against it. You might also remember almost Secretary of State Kerry voted against it. Then-Senator Obama, he gave speeches against it; he didn’t vote that day. Vice President Biden voted against it, Dick Lugar voted against it. There were some other Republicans.”
— Defense Secretary-nominee Chuck Hagel, testifying about his vote against the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment of 2007, Jan. 31, 2013
Former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) had many rocky moments during his confirmation hearing Thursday as he tried to explain some of his previous positions and statements. But we found the debate over Kyl-Lieberman Amendment — which included a section about designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization — to be especially rich in irony.
Congressional votes, in contentious elections and confirmation hearings, often get ripped out of context. Here are some of the ironies:
■ Then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vote for the amendment tripped her up in the Democratic primaries and possibly cost her the crucial Iowa caucus.
■Then-Sen. Barack Obama managed to be against this amendment, which came up for a vote, while being a co-sponsor of another bill that, with virtually the same language, also would have designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. But that other bill never came to the floor.
■ The Bush administration had already decided to designate a branch of the IRGC, the Quds Force, as supporting terrorism under a different process, Executive Order 13224, and the announcement was made shortly after the Senate vote.
■ In the end, the IRGC was never designated as a foreign terrorist organization, either under George W. Bush or Obama.
The Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which passed the Senate on Sept. 26, 2007, by a vote of 76 to 22, included this “sense of the Senate” language on the IRGC, which is a powerful branch of Iran’s military and a key player in the country’s economy:
“The United States should designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act and place the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, as established under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and initiated under Executive Order 13224.”
At the time, some Democrats argued the amendment could be seen as giving the Bush administration a green light for military action against Iran. In particular, then-Sen. James Webb of Virginia made an impassioned speech against the amendment. He argued that designating an arm of a country’s military as a terrorist organization was “tantamount to a declaration of war” and was “Dick Cheney’s fondest pipe dream.”
In a fit of congressional pique, he (as a member of Senate Foreign Relations Committee) also objected to the fact that no hearings had been held on the proposal.
“We are about to vote on something that may fundamentally change the way the United States views the Iranian military, and we have not had one hearing. This is not the way to make foreign policy. It is not the way to declare war, although this clearly worded sense of the Congress could be interpreted this way. Those who regret their vote 5 years ago to authorize military action in Iraq should think hard before supporting this approach, because, in my view, it has the same potential to do harm where many are seeking to do good.”
Indeed, nine of the 23 senators who opposed the amendment — including Obama (who missed the vote), Kerry, Biden, Hagel and Lugar — sat on the Foreign Relations Committee at the time. In other words, the opposition to the amendment was not necessarily only about the content but matters of congressional protocol.
Hagel, by the way, was wrong in his testimony — the only other Republican who opposed the amendment was Richard G. Lugar of Indiana (and senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.) And 28 Democrats voted for it, including Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chaired Hagel’s confirmation hearing, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), one of Obama’s closest allies.
But Clinton immediately came under fire in the primaries for supporting the amendment, with Obama among her harshest critics. Clinton defended the vote as not a vote for war but “a call for robust diplomatic action to deal with Iran,” reported Dan Balz of The Washington Post. He said she had “moved aggressively to contain any possible damage,” flooding Iowa with fliers to explain her vote.
Balz added: “Obama's opposition is unique among the Democratic candidates because he is on record supporting the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization.” Obama’s explanation was that he objected to other parts of the bill because it used Iran to justify a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq.
With passage of the amendment, the disputed sentences became part of a law, Section 1258 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, but the lines had no force of law because this was merely a sense of the Senate.
However, a month after the vote, the Bush administration designated, under Executive Order 13382, the IRGC as an entity of “proliferation concern” and its Quds Force affiliate as providing material support for terrorist organizations. As we noted, this action had already been under consideration before the Senate vote.
The Bottom Line
Not to put to fine a point on it, but this was a tempest in a teapot.
The concerns of opponents of the amendment, such as Hagel, turned out to be wrong — this did not open a door to military action against Iran. Obama’s stated concern about a continued military presence in Iraq was wrong too. Obama, as president, pulled out of Iraq — under a timetable set by Bush.
Yet because this was only sense-of-the-Senate language, the IRGC has never been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department.
The vote may have been largely meaningless, but never underestimate the power of symbolism. Clinton’s “yes” vote badly damaged her in the Democratic primaries, as she fell short in Iowa and lost to Obama. Meanwhile, Hagel’s “no” vote now has clearly harmed his effort to become defense secretary.
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