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Trump officials say US efforts to deter Iran have worked
Top Trump administration officials worked Tuesday to lower the temperature after weeks of escalating tension with Iran, arguing the decision to deploy U.S. military assets to the Persian Gulf has worked.
"We have deterred attacks based on our reposturing of assets, deterred attacks against American forces," acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said. "Our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation. We do not want the situation to escalate. This is about deterrence, not about war."
Shanahan was speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill after he, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford briefed the House and the Senate on intelligence that led the administration to deploy additional forces to the Middle East and warn of threats to U.S. personnel emanating from Iran.
While congressional leaders from both parties and some individual lawmakers were previously briefed, Tuesday's all-members briefings provided the first opportunity for many on Capitol Hill to question the administration on intelligence and policy toward Iran.
And while the Trump administration's messaging Tuesday appeared designed to assuage concerns, Democrats emerged from the briefings continuing to voice concerns about President Trump's strategy in the Middle East.
"I worry very much that intentionally or unintentionally we can create a situation in which a war will take place," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, told reporters. "When you do that, you're talking about a war that will go on and on and on."
Tuesday's briefing followed an outcry from lawmakers that the administration had not provided enough information to Congress on its decision to deployment military assets to the Persian Gulf and pull non-emergency personnel from diplomatic missions in Iraq in response to alleged Iranian threats.
Worry about military conflict with Iran spiked after national security adviser John Bolton announced earlier this month the accelerated deployment of a carrier strike group to the Middle East as well as a new deployment of a bomber task force in response to unspecified Iranian threats. The State Department then pulled non-emergency personnel from Iraq last week over the threats.
For his part, Trump spent days repeatedly pushing back on reports of disagreement among top aides over his administration's Iran strategy and said last week he hoped there would not be war with Tehran. On Monday evening, in a change in message, Trump said he had "no indication" Iran will act.
"With Iran, we'll see what happens. But they've been very hostile," Trump said. "We have no indication that anything has happened or will happen. But if it does, it will be met, obviously, with great force. We'll have no choice."
In addition to his comments at the Capitol, Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon ahead of the briefing Tuesday that any threat from Iran is "on hold" after the arrival of U.S. military assets to the region.
"That doesn't mean that the threats that we've previously identified have gone away," Shanahan continued. "Our prudent response, I think, has given the Iranians time to recalculate."
Trump also said Monday that if Iran called, "we would certainly negotiate," but added that "if they're not ready, they don't have to bother."
But Iran dismissed the idea of talks with the United States, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saying Tuesday that "today's situation is not suitable for talks and our choice is resistance only."
Still, several Trump allies in Congress insisted that the situation is not headed toward war, an apparent effort to diffuse heated rhetoric.
"I think both sides want to avoid war," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was also briefed last week as a member of the so-called Gang of Eight, similarly said ahead of the briefing that there has been no talk of military action.
"Nobody's talking about a military solution to the current friction with the Iranians," he said. "I haven't heard anybody discuss that."
In the House, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Mike McCaul (Texas), also told reporters "there is no intention to go to war in the region."
Democrats, though, remain concerned the administration is misrepresenting the intelligence to the public.
"I truly believe that the intel has been misinterpreted and misrepresented by Secretary Pompeo, by [national security adviser John] Bolton, and other people that do want us to go to war in Iran, as a repeat to Iraq," Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) told reporters after the briefing.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said there was debate in the Senate briefing about whether a threat has in fact been put "on hold" as Shanahan claimed.
"It doesn't seem like we've gotten any benefits thus far of the actions we've taken," Murphy said. "The Iranians don't want to talk to us, and they continue to escalate militarily. So tell me what the point of what we're doing is."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said "we are told that Iran is less threatening as a result of our actions" without getting into specifics, but added that whether the situation is de-escalating a "difficult thing to calculate."
"There's a lot going on in a lot of different places," Smith said, "so I would hesitate to say it's de-escalated at this point."