A key Trump administration policy adviser on Iran said Wednesday that the White House remains committed to pursuing diplomacy with Tehran, despite claims by Democrats that the president is on a dangerous path toward an ill-advised and illegal war with the Islamic republic.
“Our pressure campaign is working,” U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook told lawmakers during a heated House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing, before heading to the Middle East to rally Gulf Arab powers behind the administration’s expanding economic pressure campaign against Iran.
“I would say our policy at its core is an economic and diplomatic one. But Iran has not responded to this in a diplomatic fashion. It has responded to it with violence. We very much believe that Iran should meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not with terror, bloodshed and extortion,” Mr. Hook said, adding that the Trump administration is “not seeking military action.”
His comments, a day after Secrery of State Mike Pompeo pushed a similar message in remarks to reporters, did little to appease Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats, whose outspoken frustration with the administration has deepened political rifts in Washington over how the White House is handling the growing Middle East crisis.
While agreeing that Iran poses a threat to international stability, several Democrats suggested during Wednesday’s hearing that the administration’s ultimate goal is direct military conflict. They also rejected the notion that the campaign of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions has been effective, pointing to last week’s tanker attacks and Iran’s threat to dramatically ramp up uranium production as proof that Iran remains as defiant as ever.
“We’ve not seen success,” subcommittee chairman Rep. Theodore Deutch, Florida Democrat, told Mr. Hook. “It appears there is no process in place to reassess the assumptions underlying the administration’s policy, consider alternatives and change course. If the current trend continues, the Trump administration is likely to find a binary choice: Back down in the face of Iran’s aggressive behavior or engage in military action.”
The Pentagon this week announced plans to send another 1,000 troops to the Middle East, citing Iran’s “hostile” behavior. That move comes on the heels of a deployment last month that saw 1,500 troops, bombers and an aircraft carrier head to the region.
Mr. Hook disputed the idea that that such moves indicate Washington is preparing for war. He told lawmakers the troop deployments are defensive measures, meant to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel in the event Iran or its proxy group’s in Iraq launch direct attacks on American facilities there.
His comments came hours after the Pentagon released new evidence suggesting Iran was behind last week’s limpet mine attack on two commercial oil vessels in the Gulf of Oman. Navy officials showed reporters pieces of debris and a magnet that alleged to be part of the limpet mines used in the attacks last week. The officials claimed the mines bear a “striking resemblance” to those seen on display during Iranian military parades.
The officials also seemed to shoot down claims from one of the ship’s owners that a “flying object,” not a mine, was responsible for the damage. “The damage we observed is consistent with a limpet mine attack,” said Navy Cmdr. Sean Kido.
Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans, meanwhile, argued Wednesday that no one should doubt Iran was responsible for the recent oil vessel attacks. “9/11 was not an inside job. The Bermuda Triangle is not aliens. We landed on the moon. Vaccines save lives. And Iran did the attack[s] in the Gulf,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican.
Mr. Hook stressed the administration remains committed to diplomacy with Iran, but only if Tehran agrees to curb its nuclear program, roll back ballistic missile development, end its support for terrorism, and release imprisoned U.S. citizens.
There has been little measurable progress on the diplomatic front since Mr. Trump last year withdrew the U.S. from a multinational Obama-era deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear program. Instead, tensions between the two sides have risen to the near-boiling point.
Committee Democrats accused the administration of plotting to use the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force as the pretext for attacks on Iran. The document gives authority to pursue terrorist groups or other organizations connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Despite strong evidence that Iran has worked with al Qaeda and offered top terrorist figures sanctuary in their country, Democrats insisted the law doesn’t apply and made clear Congress will fight back should the administration go down that road. “The AUMF of 2001 has no relevance to the situation with Iran today and I will resist the administration using that as an excuse to go to war,” said Rep Eliot Engel, New York Democrat and the Foreign Affairs Committee’s chairman.
Mr. Hook would not directly address the AUMF issue, saying only the administration “will do everything we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers and we will comply with the law.”
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