Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress

The House and Senate are set to be briefed separately Tuesday on the Trump administration’s Iran policy as tensions in the Persian Gulf region hover at a fever pitch.

The briefing comes after President TrumpDonald John TrumpHR McMaster says president's policy to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is 'unwise' Cast of 'Parks and Rec' reunite for virtual town hall to address Wisconsin voters Biden says Trump should step down over coronavirus response MORE threatened that war would mean “the official end of Iran,” and as a number of lawmakers fear the situation is spiraling toward military action.

Some individual lawmakers have already gotten private briefings, and congressional leaders were briefed last week.

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But Tuesday’s briefings from Trump’s top security officials — including acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanHouse Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis Boeing pleads for bailout under weight of coronavirus, 737 fallout Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January MORE, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHillicon Valley: FBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden | Treasury Dept. sanctions Iranian government-backed hackers Treasury Dept. sanctions Iranian government-backed hackers The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep MORE and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford — will provide the first opportunity for many lawmakers worried about the threat of war to evaluate the intelligence the Trump administration says justifies its recent moves in the region.

One of the most prominent calls for a briefing came from Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Campaign Report: Arizona shifts towards Biden | Biden prepares for drive-in town hall | New Biden ad targets Latino voters Senate Democrats' campaign arm announces seven-figure investment to boost Graham challenger Graham: Comey to testify about FBI's Russia probe, Mueller declined invitation MORE (R-S.C.), a Trump ally. On Monday, Graham said he had been briefed by national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonDiplomacy with China is good for America The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep DOJ launches probe into Bolton book for possible classified information disclosures MORE and encouraged Trump to stay the course.

“It is clear that over the last several weeks Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq,” Graham tweeted.

“If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated we must deliver an overwhelming military response,” Graham added in a second tweet. “Stand firm Mr. President.”

The Trump administration has been dialing up pressure on Tehran since Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last year. Iran has also started rolling back its commitments to the deal, announcing Monday that it is quadrupling its uranium production capacity.

As the anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal approached, his administration took several punishing steps against Iran, including designating its Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and ending sanctions waivers for oil sales.

But tensions reached new heights two weeks ago when Bolton announced the administration was deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a B-52 bomber task force to the Persian Gulf region in response to “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran.

The administration has not detailed the nature of the threats, but reports have indicated at least part of the issue was Iran placing missiles in small boats in waters near the Gulf.

On Sunday, the Navy announced the Lincoln strike group conducted an exercise in the Arabian Sea with the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, on which the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit is serving.

The exercises were “aimed towards increasing our lethality and agility to respond to threats, and deterring destabilizing actions in this important region,” Rear Adm. John Wade, commander of the carrier strike group, said in a statement.

Still, the carrier group has yet to transit the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf, a step that could indicate the volatility of the situation depending on how Iran reacts.

Further setting off alarm bells in Washington was the administration’s decision last week to pull nonemergency staff from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil over the unspecified threats from Iran and its proxy forces.

On Sunday, Trump tweeted that “if Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.”

“Never threaten the United States again!” he added.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif replied with his own tweet, saying that “#EconomicTerrorism & genocidal taunts won't ‘end Iran.’ ” Zarif also said Trump is being “goaded” by what he has dubbed the “B Team,” which includes Bolton and regional U.S. allies such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE.

Trump did not specify what prompted his tweet, but it came shortly after a rocket landed less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. U.S. Central Command said no U.S. or coalition personnel were harmed and that Iraqi security forces are investigating.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the rocket attack, but the Iraqi military has said it appears to have been fired from east Baghdad, an area home to Iran-backed Shiite militias.

The partial diplomatic evacuation is what prompted lawmakers last week to demand a briefing, with several saying the administration was either withholding intelligence on a serious threat to U.S. personnel or was preparing for war.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFlorida senators pushing to keep Daylight Savings Time during pandemic Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts Chinese, Malaysian hackers accused of targeting over 100 organizations | GOP senators raise concerns over Oracle-TikTok deal | QAnon awareness jumps in new poll Intelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings MORE (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the administration’s military moves came after “steady, consistent and credible” threats.

“Once again it bears repeating, @potus is NOT setting up war with #Iran,” Rubio tweeted Monday. “Faced with steady, consistent & credible stream of information indicating serious threat from #IRGC proxy forces, he has positioned U.S. military in the region to defend Americans & respond to any attack.”

Others who have been briefed, though, have suggested the intelligence does not merit the Trump administration’s muscular response.

“What I learned only made me more concerned that this administration is trying to create a situation that will get us into war,” House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoHispanic caucus report takes stock of accomplishments with eye toward 2021 Senators call on Pentagon to reinstate funding for Stars and Stripes newspaper Hispanic Caucus campaign chief to mount leadership bid MORE (D-Ariz.) said Sunday on MSNBC. “There's nothing that's, in terms of our security or anything that I saw, that’s an existential threat to the security of the United States and even to our interests in the region. While there may be some security threats to them, it's nothing that would require us to actually move so many assets at that area and to threaten an open war with a country actually that can defend itself fairly well.”