U.S. Officials Say Military Moves to Deter Iran Are Working
WASHINGTON — Top Trump administration national security officials said on Tuesday that their moves to deter Iran from attacks on Americans and allies were working, but vowed to continue the pressure campaign on Tehran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan briefed Congress about the intelligence that prompted the United States to send an aircraft carrier, bombers and missile defense systems to the Persian Gulf region.
The briefings on Tuesday, first to House lawmakers and then to the Senate, did not include John R. Bolton, the national security adviser who is the fiercest Iran hawk in President Trump’s administration.
Late last week, Iran removed some missiles it had stationed on small boats in its territorial waters — a step American officials said was a sign that Iran was seeking to ease tensions.
“Our prudent response, I think, has given the Iranians time to recalculate,” Mr. Shanahan told reporters on Tuesday morning. “I think our response was a measure of our will and our resolve that we will protect our people and our interests in the region.”
In a radio interview, Mr. Pompeo said that the United States had not determined who was responsible for sabotage attacks last week on oil tankers in the Middle East, but that “it seems like it’s quite possible that Iran was behind” them.
He also defended the administration’s steps against Iran and said the United States would continue to “work to deter Iran from misbehavior in the region.”
“We’ve made clear that we will not allow Iran to hide behind its proxy forces, but that if American interests are attacked, whether by Iran directly or through its proxy forces, we will respond in an appropriate way against Iran,” Mr. Pompeo told Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host.
Classified intelligence analysis made available to lawmakers in recent days has pointedly noted that Iran’s military moves are in reaction to the Trump administration’s tough sanctions against Tehran and its decision to designate the paramilitary arm of Iran’s government a terrorist organization, according to two officials. Both described the analysis on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Some intelligence reports indicate that Iranian officials believed they were about to be attacked by the United States, and were taking defensive measures.
Like many things in Washington, reactions to the administration’s handling of the tensions with Iran have fallen along a sharp partisan divide.
Republicans briefed on the intelligence have publicly described it as troubling, and the situation as dangerous. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said the fault for the recent tensions in the Middle East lies with Iran.
“If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated we must deliver an overwhelming military response,” Mr. Graham wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Stand firm Mr. President.”
Democrats viewing the same reports have come away with a far different view and suggested that Iran has been pushed into its recent moves.
“I believe there is a certain level of escalation of both sides that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, Democrat of Arizona. “The feedback loop tells us they’re escalating for war, but they could just be escalating because we’re escalating.”
He accused Mr. Bolton and other Iran hard-liners in the Trump administration of trying to get the United States into a “shooting war” with Iran.
“I don’t let the president off the hook. He has made all the decisions that have led up to this,” Mr. Murphy said in a later interview. “When it comes to sanctions on Iran, the administration has imposed them in a way that is pushing us toward conflict, not pushing us to the negotiating table.”
In Baghdad, the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, said his country wanted to reduce tensions between Iran and the United States.
“We want to defuse the crisis by taking advantage of our relationships with both countries,” Mr. Mahdi said in his weekly news conference on Tuesday.
Mr. Mahdi said that while Baghdad would not play the role of mediator, Iraq was conveying messages between the United States and Iran and would “send delegations to Tehran and Washington to contain the crisis and put an end to the military escalation.”
The Iraqi government, which has ties to both Iran and the United States, has made clear it fears being caught in the middle and having the two countries fight on its soil.
A rocket struck near the United States Embassy in Baghdad on Sunday evening. The United States played down the significance of the attack, no one claimed responsibility and there were no injuries or damage, but it was a reminder of the fragility of the situation.
It also underscored how an antagonistic gesture, potentially by a minor faction, has the potential to destabilize the region.
Ahead of the closed briefing on Capitol Hill, two Obama administration officials — John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director, and Wendy R. Sherman, a senior diplomat who helped negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran — spoke to House Democrats during their weekly closed-door caucus meeting, according to two people familiar with the discussion but unauthorized to disclose it publicly.
Mr. Brennan told lawmakers that Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal had weakened America’s credibility in Iran. He also said the Trump administration’s actions toward Iran had undercut moderates in the cleric-led government in Tehran, according to a person who was in the room.
Representative Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and former Army Ranger who served in Iraq, called for creating a hotline between the American and Iranian militaries, like the one the United States and Russia established in Syria, to help avoid military mishaps.
“It’s very important that we have military-to-military communication in the Middle East to avoid misunderstanding,” Mr. Crow said.