Democrats fret over Iran escalation risk

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Article Summary
Democrats are urging the Donald Trump administration to tamp down tensions with Iran following an all-members briefing.

The United States’ top diplomat and its lead civilian and military defense officials today failed to assuage lawmakers’ concerns that the country may be inadvertently hurtling toward war with Iran.

“I still don’t have a clear idea of what the administration’s objectives are,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., told reporters after today’s briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford. “They have said over and over again that regime change is not the objective. What is the maximum pressure campaign trying to achieve?”

Ahead of the hearing, Pompeo tweeted that he was headed to Capitol Hill for a “serious discussion” about “40 years of unprovoked Iranian aggression.” But Democrats had little patience for it: Smith said the secretary of state launched a “very lengthy political argument” for 10 minutes before the Washington Democrat felt compelled to cut him off.

“There was a lot of talk in the briefing about how there’s a huge risk of Iran miscalculating, striking in a way that gets a response they didn’t anticipate,” Smith said while defending the Donald Trump administration’s decision to send bombers and a US aircraft carrier group to the region.

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“I think putting ourselves in a position to make sure that Iran knows that if they strike our troops, they will face a response is appropriate,” Smith told Al-Monitor. “I don’t have a problem with that.”

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., went further, likening current tensions with Iran to the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“A war with Iran would be an absolute disaster, far worse than the war with Iraq, and I hope the American people tell this administration that we will not go to war in Iraq,” Sanders said. “I worry very much that — intentionally or unintentionally — we can create a situation in which a war will take place.”

Sanders and three other White House hopefuls have signed on to a Senate bill blocking funding for military action against Iran: Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. In the House, fellow presidential candidates Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Seth Moulton, D-Mass., have introduced their own separate bills intended to curtail military action against Iran.

And earlier today, the House Appropriations Committee voted 30-22 along party lines to amend its annual defense spending bill with a provision that would repeal the 2001 military authorization in eight months, which has been used as the legal basis for military action against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told Al-Monitor that she’s concerned the Trump administration could use the 2001 authorization as a justification to attack Iran “as well as other parts of the world, as [others presidents] have done in the past.”

Pompeo refused to state that the 2001 military authorization does not apply to Iran when pushed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. However, the Daily Beast reports that today’s briefers told lawmakers there was no evidence of cooperation between Iran and al-Qaeda in the recent regional flare-up, complicating any potential legal case to use the 2001 law to go after Iran.

Paul’s Republican colleagues have framed the Trump administration’s approach to Iran more favorably, arguing that the military buildup and the White House’s heightened rhetoric presents a credible deterrent against potential attacks on US forces.

“This is a deterrent operation that is to stop Iran’s escalation and aggression in the region,” said Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Daily Beast reported today that McCaul and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., met with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today, but the exact purpose of the meeting remains unclear.

McCaul went on to blame Iran for last weekend’s rocket attack near the US Embassy in Baghdad and last week’s attack on four oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz. Neither Tehran nor its proxies have claimed responsibility for either attack, but Iraqi security forces have found a rocket launch pad in areas around Baghdad controlled by Iran-backed militias.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the chairman of the Senate’s Middle East panel, also referenced the attack on the oil tankers. But he noted that an “attack on American personnel has not occurred and perhaps that’s related to the fact that we set up a very strong deterrent message to the people in the leadership in Iran.”

He also said that “there is specific, credible evidence of the malign interest on the part of Iran.”

Still, Democrats accuse Republicans of mischaracterizing the intelligence.

“I’m listening to Republicans twist the Iran intel to make it sound like Iran is taking unprovoked, offensive measures against the US and our allies,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the top Democrat on the Senate Middle East panel, tweeted Monday. “Like it just came out of nowhere. I’ve read the intel too. And let me be clear — that’s not what the intel says.”

Despite their misgivings, some lawmakers remain hopeful the situation can be defused.

“I think the president is saying he’d like to talk to Iran, of course Iran has to be willing to talk to us,” Smith said. “But there are a variety of other back channels that could be used, that I hope are being used, to reduce the risk of miscalculation.”

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Found in: Iran-US tensions

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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