Intelligence briefings on U.S. relations with Iran Tuesday left Democrats in both the Senate and the House unsure of what the Trump administration’s objectives are following recent heightened tensions in the Middle East.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, briefed lawmakers on their strategic campaign to push back against what he called “Iran’s malign activity” and described the country as participating in 40 years of terrorist activity.
“We still don’t have a clear understanding of what the administration’s objectives are,” said Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “They have said over and over again that regime change is not the objective. What is this maximum pressure campaign trying to achieve?” the Washington Democrat asked.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump sent a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group and a bomber group to the Middle East to quell new threats to the U.S. in that region.
Pompeo stressed, in a press conference with reporters, that he and Shanahan briefed lawmakers on U.S. goals to deter future attacks.
“And so we talked to them about that, and we tried to place that — or place the recent intelligence in context of that 40 years of history,” Pompeo said. “And we walked through our efforts and our ultimate objective over the past days, which has been to deter Iran.”
Smith warned of the U.S. possibly miscalculating with the pressure it has been putting on Iran.
“There was a lot of talk in the briefing about how there’s huge risk of Iran miscalculating, you know, striking in a way that gets a response that they didn’t anticipate? I think there’s risk for miscalculation on both sides,” Smith told reporters following the briefing. “And that remains my biggest concern.”
And while Smith had concerns about the level of information sharing, he said he understood why the Pentagon was moving assets to the region.
“Putting ourselves in position to ensure that Iran knows that if they strike our troops, that they will face a response is appropriate,” Smith said. “I don’t have a problem with that.”
Republicans in both chambers seemed on board with the administration’s case.
“If anybody is questioning that somehow there is made-up intelligence, that’s ludicrous,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said. “They’re not going to say something that’s not well rounded and well sourced, and I walked away convinced.”
Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, was among the first senators to speak publicly after the briefing on the Senate side, which was the second of the afternoon. Asked if he was presented with any convincing intel that Iran is posing new threats to the U.S. and its allies in the region, Kennedy said yes.
“I am convinced, based on what I just heard, that the actions that the administration took were necessary and appropriate.”
Asked if it’s going to get to the point of military action with Iran, Kennedy said he hopes not and doesn’t believe that to be so.
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, who is also the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for Pentagon spending, said he did not hear anything that made him feel better about what the administration is doing with respect to Iran, but the Illinois Democrat said that did not appear to be the case with his GOP colleagues. “With the exception of two senators, the Republican majority appears to be going along with this,” the Illinois Democrat told CQ Roll Call. He did not specify who those two outliers are.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy lamented that the U.S. can communicate with the North Koreans, but not with the Iranians and noted that former Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were able to talk on the phone to diffuse conflict.
“I think what I learned from the briefing is that the Iranians are no closer to talking than ever before. That they do not seem to be backing down from a standpoint of military provocation, and thus you have to ask whether our strategy is working. If the Iranians aren’t ready to talk and they are ramping up their provocative actions in the region, that would seem to be a pretty significant indictment of our current policy right now,” Murphy said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Graham, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for State Department and Foreign Operations spending, had until this week expressed concern about the extent of briefings, but he was perhaps the most hawkish of all by Tuesday.
“The threat streams from Iran against American interests are real and severe,” the South Carolina Republican said in a statement after Tuesday’s Senate briefing. “The Trump administration has shown amazing restraint in the face of escalating aggressions from Iran. The Iranian-directed attacks on four ships, sabotaging other nations’ pipelines, and the firing of rockets into the Green Zone in Iraq have not yet led to a military response.”
Katherine Tully-McManus and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.