Pentagon chief nominee: 'We need to get back on the diplomatic channel' with Iran

Pentagon chief nominee: 'We need to get back on the diplomatic channel' with Iran
© Greg Nash

The Pentagon will soon brief lawmakers on a plan to conduct “passive” patrols in the Gulf region in response to threats from Iran, Defense Secretary nominee Mark Esper said Tuesday.

“I agree we do not want war with Iran,” Esper, who previously served as Army secretary, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We are not seeking war with Iran. We need to get back on the diplomatic channel.”

Esper made the remarks at his confirmation hearing to become Defense secretary.

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Asked later in the hearing whether the 2001 authorization for the use of military force would justify military action against Iran, Esper flatly said, "no."

"2001 applies to terrorist groups and organizations, and that would not be the case here with regard to the country of Iran," he said. Still, he maintained the president has power under Article II of the Constitution to protect U.S. troops and respond to an attack from Iran.

The hearing comes at a time of skyrocketing U.S.-Iran tensions. President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE has said he was within minutes of striking Iran last month in response to the shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone.

Tensions have also spiked as Tehran has breached two key limits of the 2015 agreement that placed constraints on its nuclear program. Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2018.

The tensions have also been born out of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region the United States has blamed on Iran.

The Trump administration has pitched a plan to U.S. allies to escort vessels transiting through the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said last week the main job of the U.S. military in the plan would be to provide “maritime domain awareness” to the ships of coalition partners doing the patrols.

On Tuesday, Esper described the plan, dubbed Operation Sentinel, as a chance to “foreclose” opportunities for miscalculation and “deter any provocative acts by the Iranians” or their Revolutionary Guard.

“At the same time, from the highest levels of government, from the president himself, we have said we will meet anytime, anywhere without precondition to discuss issues with the Iranians to get us on the diplomatic path,” he added.

Pressed by Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenators ask for committee vote on 'red flag' bills after shootings Senate Democrats demand Trump order review of White House security clearances Overnight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador MORE (R.I.), the top Democrat on the committee, if diplomacy is the most thoughtful way to proceed, Esper replied that “diplomacy always is.”

Later in the hearing, Esper added that diplomacy should result in an "updated" Iran deal that covers "with finality" Iran's nuclear program, as well as its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Updated at 12:12 p.m.