President Trump said Thursday that he hopes to avoid war with Iran, as Democrats warned that the administration lacks congressional approval for military force and tensions continued to rise in the region over the president’s pressure campaign against Tehran.
Saudi Arabia took a fresh shot at its longtime regional rival by blaming Tehran for a drone attack that knocked out a key oil pipeline. A newspaper close to the palace called on the U.S. to carry out “surgical” strikes on Iran.
A string of U.S. moves in recent days — including a leaked proposal for a 120,000-troop deployment in the region and the withdrawal of some U.S. diplomatic personnel from neighboring Iraq — has sent fears of a military clash soaring and left the Trump White House scrambling to persuade lawmakers and allies of the strength of its intelligence.
As he appeared at the entrance to the West Wing at midday for a meeting with the president of Switzerland, a frequent diplomatic go-between for Washington and Tehran, Mr. Trump was asked by a reporter whether the U.S. would be going to war with Iran.
“I hope not,” the president replied.
The president has told acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan that he does not want to go to war with Iran, The New York Times reported, characterizing it as a message from Mr. Trump to his own hawkish aides that the U.S. economic pressure campaign against Iran’s Islamic regime must not escalate into armed conflict.
As administration officials briefed top congressional leaders privately on the situation and set a briefing next week for the full Senate, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, warned the administration that Congress must approve any military conflict with Iran.
In her weekly press briefing, Mrs. Pelosi said the White House cannot cite the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) “as any authorization to go forward in the Middle East now,” and she reiterated that only Congress can declare war.
“I hope the president’s advisers recognize that they have no authorization to go forward in any way,” she said.
Lawmakers have grown frustrated with the administration from a lack of consultation after the State Department announced the withdrawal of nonessential U.S. government personnel from Iraq over unspecified threats that, the administration said, are linked to neighboring Iran.
Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters he is “convinced that the information and warnings that we have collected are of greater concern than the normal Iranian harassment activity that we’ve seen in the Persian Gulf and surrounding areas.”
The specific threats from Iran are unconfirmed, although the U.S. moves reportedly were triggered by intelligence that showed Tehran-backed militias in Iraq moving rockets onto boats and sites that could hit American troops stationed there.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch, Idaho Republican, told reporters that the White House sounded the alarm on Iran after seeing multiple pieces of intelligence.
It wasn’t “a single item that [moved] the needle,” Mr. Risch said, according to The Associated Press. “There’s been public reporting about the movement of rockets on a boat. … I would strongly caution everyone not to grab on to that and say, ‘Aha! This is it.’ That is the tip of the iceberg.”
The “Gang of Eight,” which includes leaders of the House and Senate, and the chair and ranking members of both intelligence committees, were briefed by administration officials about Iran late Thursday. Lawmakers emerged tight-lipped from the closed-door meeting, confirming only that the full Senate would be briefed Tuesday.
“I think it’s very important that all members hear this story,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Mr. Trump has denied infighting in the White House over Iran policy amid reports that he has been uneasy with the push by hawkish aides such as National Security Adviser John R. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for a more confrontational approach with Tehran.
Mr. Trump has expressed interest in direct talks with Tehran and predicted that more stringent sanctions, in particular on vital oil imports, will force Iranians to the bargaining table.
But Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was meeting with Japanese officials in Tokyo, told reporters, “No, there is no possibility for negotiations” with the U.S., Kyodo News reported.
Mr. Zarif was a key architect of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Mr. Trump withdrew from a year ago. European allies, Russia and China have struggled to keep the deal alive in the face of punishing U.S. sanctions that the administration has reimposed on Iran.
In Washington, some Democrats scoffed at reports of a divided White House, even though Mr. Trump has consistently criticized open-ended U.S. overseas military deployments.
Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, posted a message on Twitter that said, “Trump, not his advisers, ordered this pattern of escalation — pulling out of Iran [nuclear] deal, engaging in unilateral sanctions, naming [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] as a terrorist group — despite opposition from military leaders.”
Region on edge
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted this week that there would be no war, and Iranian officials say they are willing to talk with the U.S. only if Mr. Trump rejoins the nuclear deal. But there was no question that the tension in Washington was matched by escalating rhetoric in the region as well.
The head of the IRGC, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, said this week that Iran is “on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation with the enemy.”
A state-aligned Saudi newspaper, Arab News, argued in an English-language editorial that after incidents this week against Saudi energy targets, the next logical step for the U.S. “should be surgical strikes.”
The editorial said U.S. airstrikes in Syria, when the government there was suspected of using chemical weapons against civilians, “set a precedent.”
It added that it’s “clear that [U.S.] sanctions are not sending the right message” and “they must be hit hard” in reference to Iran. The editorial did not elaborate on specific targets that should be struck.
Saudi Arabia accused Iran of ordering this week’s attack by Yemeni rebels on a key oil pipeline. Prince Khalid Bin Salman, the vice minister for defense and brother of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, tweeted that the drone attack on two Saudi Aramco pumping stations “proves that these militias are merely a tool that Iran’s regime uses to implement its expansionist agenda in the region.”
“The terrorist acts, ordered by the regime in Tehran, and carried out by the Houthis, are tightening the noose around the ongoing political efforts,” he said. “These militias are merely a tool that Iran’s regime uses to implement its expansionist agenda in the region.”
Iran recently said it would resume enriching uranium at higher levels if the Europeans fail to ease the U.S.-inspired economic squeeze by July 7. That could bring it closer to the capability of developing a nuclear weapon, something Iran insists it has never sought.
Al-Jazeera reported that Qatar is trying to “defuse escalating tensions” by sending its foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, to Tehran. The Qatar-funded satellite news broadcaster said the U.S. was aware of the trip in advance.
Qatar hosts the forward headquarters of the Central Command at its vast Al Udeid Air Base. Several of the B-52 bombers ordered by the White House to the region amid the latest escalation between Washington and Tehran are stationed there.
⦁ Guy Taylor contributed to this report.
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