Goal is deterring Iran, not war, say Trump officials

Patrick Shanahan and Mike Pompeo after the classified briefing for members of US Congress on Iran Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

Top Trump administration officials have told Congress that recent actions by the US in response to the situation in Iran have deterred attacks on American forces.

After a day of closed-door briefings on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said their objective over recent days has been to deter Iran and now they want to prevent further escalation.

“We’re not about going to war,” Mr Shanahan told reporters.

“Our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation,” said Mr Shanahan, flanked by Mr Pompeo, after back-to-back briefings for the House and Senate.

“We do not want the situation to escalate.”

The officials arrived on Capitol Hill as questions mounted over President Donald Trump’s tough talk on Iran and sudden 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.

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

Mr Trump, veering between bombast and conciliation in his quest to contain Iran, threatened on Monday to meet provocations by Iran with “great force”, but he also said he was willing to negotiate.

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

Senator Mitt Romney said the action taken by the Trump administration “is totally appropriate” and sends 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.

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.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Capitol Hill in Washington Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

Democrats are particularly concerned the Trump administration may try to rely on nearly 20-year-old war authorisations rather than seek fresh approval from Congress for any action.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he told Mr Pompeo and the others their consultation with Congress has been “inadequate”.

Mr Shananan said he and the others heard that message and vowed to better communicate with lawmakers and the public.

In recent weeks, the US sent an aircraft carrier strike group, four bomber aircraft and other assets to the region, and is moving a Patriot missile battery to an undisclosed country in the area.

The Trump administration has evacuated non-essential personnel from Iraq, amid unspecified threats the administration says are linked to Iran.

Mr Shanahan said the recent US actions in the region were based on “credible threats” to US forces and interests in the Middle East.

“We have deterred attacks based on our repositioning of assets, deterred attacks against American forces,” he said.

Top Democrats say Mr Trump escalated problems by abruptly withdrawing the US from the Iran nuclear deal, a complex accord negotiated during the Obama administration to prevent Iran from nuclear weapons production.

“I have yet to see any exhibited strategy,” said Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer.

Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said, “What I’m interested in more right now is what the administration’s strategy is — if they have one — to keep us out of war.”

Republicans and Mr Trump’s allies in Congress said the threats from Iran are real.

The US military appears to have concluded that Iran was behind the reported attack on May 12 on four commercial vessels off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

A US official said on Monday a probe into the attack was finished and evidence still pointed at Iran, although the official did not provide details.

On Sunday, a rocket landed near the US Embassy in the Green Zone of Iraq’s capital of Baghdad, days after non-essential US staff were ordered to evacuate from diplomatic posts in the country. No one was reported injured.

Defence officials said no additional Iranian threats or incidents had emerged in the days since the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier battle group arrived in the Arabian Sea late last week.

Iran, meanwhile, announced that it has quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity.

Officials said it remains set to the limits of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, making it usable for a power plant but far below what is needed for an atomic weapon.

Tehran long has insisted it does not seek nuclear weapons, although the West fears its programme could allow it to build them.