Trump officials to brief lawmakers after warning of Iranian threats

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Nancy Pelosi

“Let me say that we have to avoid any war with Iran,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

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‘That we would repeat that [is] unthinkable,’ said Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a GOP critic of the president.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle warned President Donald Trump on Wednesday to avoid plunging the United States into another Iraq-like war in the Middle East, demanding more information about vague warnings that Iran might be planning attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities in the region.

Congressional leaders will get more information about the situation on Thursday during a confidential briefing with Trump officials, according to two Democratic sources. On Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, politicians fretted that the situation felt eerily similar to the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

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“It’s close to inconceivable that the president, the administration would consider a war with Iran,” said Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a GOP critic of the president. “The president made it clear when he ran for president that one of the worst foreign policy mistakes in American history was the decision to go to war with Iraq. And that we would repeat that [is] unthinkable and something I can’t imagine the president or his senior staff would consider.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will attend Thursday’s briefing, minced no words during a closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday, which came as the State Department evacuated non-emergency staffers from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“Let me say that we have to avoid any war with Iran,” she said, according to a congressional aide.

Pelosi’s deputy, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, stressed that all members of Congress must get a briefing. “This is a serious situation and we want to make sure we’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” he said.

Over in the Senate, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) is seeking an all-senators briefing for next week.

“I think there’s a lot more to be known before decisions are made,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).

Later Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) panned the classified briefings that Congress is receiving and called for Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan to testify publicly before Congress this week.

“The American people deserve to know what’s going on,” Schumer said. “When things are done in secret, behind closed doors, mistakes can be made and momentum built for a course of action that the nation ultimately regrets.”

Trump is due to meet Thursday with Ueli Maurer, the president of Switzerland. The Swiss often act as a diplomatic go-between for Iran and the United States, meaning Maurer’s visit to the White House could offer Trump a chance to send a message to Tehran, possibly to de-escalate the crisis.

White House officials did not immediately respond to a query about whether this was the plan, but the late Wednesday announcement about Maurer’s visit mentioned that the two leaders would discuss “matters such as Switzerland’s role in facilitating diplomatic relations.”

Tensions between Iran and the United States have spiked in the past week as U.S. officials said fresh intelligence indicated that Iran or its proxies in the region are planning attacks on American troops, diplomats and facilities.

The State Department on Wednesday ordered the evacuation of non-emergency staff from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, where a number of Iranian-allied militias operate. The department also urged Americans not to travel to Iraq.

The Trump administration also has sped up the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, while reportedly drafting plans for sending tens of thousands of troops to the Middle East.

It’s difficult to tell how serious the alleged Iranian threats are and whether the administration’s response so far has been proportional. The president himself appears hesitant to engage Iran in a military conflict. But some of his top aides, especially national security adviser John Bolton, have in the past championed the idea of attacking Iran and finding ways to topple its Islamist-led regime.

Iran has responded to the Trump administration’s rhetoric with a mixture of mockery and bellicosity, but always insisting that it wants no part in a war with the U.S. Still, there’s fear that a war could evolve inadvertently if lower-level fighters on either side make moves that lead to a military response.

Democrats hoping to challenge Trump for the presidency in 2020 jumped into the fray as U.S.-Iran tensions soared. They noted that several top Trump staffers, including Bolton, pushed for the U.S. invasion of Iraq based on faulty, and possibly manipulated, intelligence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. can’t make the same mistake on Iran, a harder target than Iraq, they said.

“It’s time to end the forever wars,” 2020 candidate Pete Buttigieg wrote on Twitter. “But in this White House, some of the same people who got us into Iraq now seem ready to stoke a new conflict. It’s another reason Congress must reassert its war powers.”

“This is chicken hawks trying to drag us into a war with Iran just like they did 15 years ago in Iraq,” said Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a Democrat running for president who has been highlighting his military service.

Some U.S. allies have also appeared hesitant to take the Trump administration at its word about imminent Iranian threats in the region.

A British major general, Chris Ghika, who is a top official in the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State terrorist group, told reporters Tuesday that there was “no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces” to U.S. and other coalition troops in Iraq and Syria. Ghika dismissed the idea there was any contradiction between the U.S. and Britain on the subject, but U.S. military officials still issued a rare rebuttal of Ghika’s remarks.

European diplomatic officials urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to exercise “maximum restraint” with Iran after he flew to Brussels to brief them this week, a nod to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. That campaign has led the Trump administration to impose heavy economic sanctions on Iran after the president decided just over a year ago to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal.

Spain, meanwhile, announced the temporary withdrawal of a frigate from the U.S.-led naval group whose deployment to the Persian Gulf was sped up. Reports on why Spain was doing so varied, though some indicated it was because the naval group’s mission was now focused on alleged threats from Iran.

America’s European allies “do not see the same threat that this administration is talking about,” Ben Rhodes, a former top aide to President Barack Obama, said Wednesday on MSNBC.

Rhodes added that during his eight years in the White House, “there was always intelligence about one particular group or another that could pose a threat to U.S. interests in the region from Iran or one of its proxies. That’s not new.”

But some U.S. and foreign diplomats privately told POLITICO that the threats are credible, noting that the diplomatic security division of the State Department is known for its caution on such matters.

How the U.S. reacts could depend on how it is defining the threat, and critics of the administration worry that its parameters are far too wide.

In announcing that the administration was speeding up the deployment of the aircraft carrier and other warships to the Middle East, Bolton said that “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

Iran has links to an array of militias throughout the Middle East, but it is not always in direct command and control of their actions. The U.S. also has many allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, whose own military forces are in multiple places, raising the risk of contact with Iran or its proxies.

Trump on Tuesday denied a New York Times report that he was considering sending some 120,000 troops to the Middle East to counter the Iranian threat. But he didn’t rule it out, either.

“Now, would I do that? Absolutely,” Trump said. “But we have not planned for that. Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. If we did that, we would send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

Still, on Wednesday, the president dismissed talk of infighting in his administration over Iran policy. He also signaled, again, that he wants to negotiate with the Iranians.

“There is no infighting whatsoever,” Trump tweeted. “Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision — it is a very simple process. All sides, views, and policies are covered. I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”

Iranian leaders have deflected previous Trump offers of talks, saying they won’t consider talking unless he returns the U.S. to the nuclear agreement. That agreement, reached in 2015 under Obama, had lifted U.S. sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

A massive build-up of U.S. troops in the Middle East would take months, but the 120,000 figure is widely believed to be an inadequate number for a full-on invasion of Iran, a country that is larger in size and population than Iraq, with a far more sophisticated military apparatus.

Iranian officials dismissed the notion of a war, while still stating that they would prevail in any encounter.

“We don’t seek a war nor do they. They know a war wouldn’t be beneficial for them,” Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tuesday.

It’s a back-and-forth that is causing hand-wringing in Washington.

“There’s concern of the rhetoric on both sides,” said Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “We have to know what’s going on. And we don’t know.”

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