Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 September 2019

Members of Congress split on Trump administration approach to Iran

Politicians have mixed reactions to the White House's regional policy after full day of closed-door briefings

Patrick Shanahan, acting US Secretary of Defense, speaks to members of the media after a briefing on Iran by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the basement of the US Capitol in Washington. Bloomberg
Patrick Shanahan, acting US Secretary of Defense, speaks to members of the media after a briefing on Iran by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the basement of the US Capitol in Washington. Bloomberg

Members of the US Congress remain split over the threat of Iran in the region after being told during a day of closed-door briefings in Washington that US President Donald Trump is tamping down talk of war.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said their objective over recent days has been to deter Iran. Now their goal is to prevent further escalation.

“We're not about going to war," Mr Shanahan said, flanked by Mr Pompeo. "Our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation”.

The officials arrived on Capitol Hill as questions mounted over Mr Trump's tough talk on Iran and policy shifts in the region. Sceptical Democrats sought out a second opinion, holding their own briefing with former Obama administration officials, former CIA Director John Brennan and Wendy Sherman, an architect of the Iran nuclear deal.

US officials who briefed Congress about Iran on Tuesday sought to convince members that the administration wants to deter Tehran's aggression, not attack the Islamic republic, members of Congress said.

The results of the meetings were mixed, with views settling largely along partisan lines.

"I hope they're tamping down [the rhetoric]. They tried to give that impression," Eliot Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said after the classified briefing for the full House of Representatives.

The closed-door sessions Tuesday came after weeks of escalating tensions that raised alarms over a possible military confrontation with Iran.

Mitt Romney, a senator from Utah, said the action taken by the Trump administration "is totally appropriate" and sent a message that "if you attack our people, there will be a response".

Mr Romney characterised it as defensive in nature and meant to deter Iran from "malign" actions.

The Democratic representative Ruben Gallego, a veteran of the Iraq War, left the classified House briefing saying: "What I heard in there makes it clear that this administration feels that they do not have to come back and talk to Congress in regards to any action they do in Iran."

Some Republican officials took a more bellicose stance, accusing their colleagues of downplaying the threat of regional conflict for political reasons.

The Republican senator Lindsey Graham said they were told the recent attacks on shipping and a pipeline in the Middle East were directed by the Iranian government and that US officials had detected worrisome communication between Tehran and a Shiite militia, prompting the military to quickly relocate an aircraft carrier.

"They explained to us how the Iranian threat streams were different than in the past, that the attack on the ships and the pipeline was co-ordinated and directed by the Iranian government, the ayatollah," Mr Graham told reporters.

Some House Democrats accused administration officials of twisting intelligence to make the case for what they see as an aggressive response to any Iranian actions.

"In my opinion, there was not any information there that pointed to any reason why we should be engaging in talk of war with Iran," said Mr Gallego.

Democrats also faulted Mr Trump's administration for, as they put it, lacking a long-term plan to deal with Iran now that Washington has withdrawn from the nuclear agreement.

Iran, meanwhile, announced that it had quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity. Officials said the level of enrichment adhered to the limits of the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, making the uranium usable for a power plant but far below what is needed for an atomic weapon.

Tehran has long insisted it does not seek nuclear weapons, but the West fears its nuclear programme could allow it to build the weapons of mass destruction.

Updated: May 22, 2019 05:33 PM