By Julian E. Barnes, Catie Edmondson and Emily Cochrane, New York Times–
Top American national security officials sought to convince a divided Congress on Tuesday about the seriousness of new threats from Iran as they defended intelligence that has prompted military deployments aimed at deterring attacks by Tehran.
Democrats emerged from the classified briefings on Capitol Hill with sharp questions about whose actions ultimately led to the recent escalation: Tehran’s or the Trump administration’s.
Late last week, Iran removed some missiles it had stationed on small boats in its territorial waters — a step American officials said was a sign that Iran was seeking to ease tensions. On Tuesday, American officials said Iran had threatened to target those missiles at Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure to drive up oil prices and disrupt international trade.
Recent intelligence has indicated that Iran was considering such attacks in response to tough American sanctions against Iran’s oil sector and the administration’s decision to designate the paramilitary arm of Iran’s government a terrorist organization, according to two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the analysis publicly.
“Are they reacting to us, or are we doing these things in reaction to them? That is a major question I have, that I still have,” Senator Angus King, a Maine independent who mostly votes with Democrats, said after the closed-door briefings.
“The most immediate concern is the danger of miscalculation,” Mr. King said. “What we view as defensive, they view as provocative. Or vice versa.”
In separate meetings with senators and representatives, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan outlined the intelligence that prompted the United States to send an aircraft carrier, bombers and missile defense systems to the Persian Gulf region this month.
“We have deterred attacks based on our reposturing of assets, deterred attacks against American forces,” Mr. Shanahan said after briefing lawmakers. “Our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation. We do not want the situation to escalate. This is about deterrence, not about war.”
The meetings did not include John R. Bolton, the national security adviser who is the fiercest Iran hawk in President Trump’s administration. But lawmakers said Mr. Pompeo was strident in the meeting, outlining the history of Iran’s regional aggression.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that he had sent a message through an intermediary to Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s paramilitary forces, that he would be held accountable for any attacks on the United States, according to officials who were in the briefings and described them on condition of anonymity.
In a radio interview, Mr. Pompeo said that the United States had not determined who was responsible for sabotage attacks last week on oil tankers in the Middle East, but that “it seems like it’s quite possible that Iran was behind” them.
He also defended the administration’s steps against Iran and said the United States would continue to “work to deter Iran from misbehavior in the region.”
“We’ve made clear that we will not allow Iran to hide behind its proxy forces, but that if American interests are attacked, whether by Iran directly or through its proxy forces, we will respond in an appropriate way against Iran,” Mr. Pompeo told Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host.
Like many things in Washington, reactions to the administration’s handling of the tensions with Iran have fallen along a sharp partisan divide.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, told reporters that the briefing made clear that “this was an escalation of the threat stream we have not seen before.”
“I’m convinced the threat stream that they picked up is real and the actions of the Iranians went to a new level,” said Mr. Graham, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. “This is a defining moment for the Trump administration, the Trump administration needs to let them know that the maximum pressure campaign will continue.”
Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who sits on both the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees, praised the administration for sending a strong deterrent message in the face of what he described as “consistent, credible threats of imminent action.”
“It’s a very simple equation. If Iran doesn’t attack, there won’t be any problem. If Iran attacks, the president is going to go ‘dracarys’ on them,” Mr. Rubio said, invoking a “Game of Thrones” reference. “He’s going to respond.”
Democrats who viewed the same intelligence reports came away with a far more skeptical view and suggested that Iran has been pushed into its recent moves.
“I believe there is a certain level of escalation of both sides that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, Democrat of Arizona. “The feedback loop tells us they’re escalating for war, but they could just be escalating because we’re escalating.”
Democrats also criticized Mr. Trump’s handling of the crisis, unconvinced the administration had a clear strategy to push Iran to the bargaining table. They raised questions about whether the administration had adequate back-channel communications to prevent an accidental military escalation.
“It’s clear to me after this briefing that the administration’s approach to Iran is not working,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, adding that the American pressure campaign “has pushed Iran further away from the negotiating table.”
After the briefing, Mr. Pompeo was asked if the administration would speak directly to Iran. “There are plenty of ways that we can have a communication channel,” he responded.
In Tehran, Iranian leaders showed no hint of softening. In a speech reported Tuesday by state-run news media, President Hassan Rouhani dismissed any suggestion of direct talks with the United States. “Today’s circumstances are not suitable for negotiations at all, as our conditions today are those of resistance and fortitude,” Mr. Rouhani said.
The Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, said his country wanted to reduce tensions between Iran and the United States.
Mr. Mahdi said that while Baghdad would not play the role of mediator, Iraq was conveying messages between the United States and Iran and would “send delegations to Tehran and Washington to contain the crisis and put an end to the military escalation.”
The Iraqi government, which has ties to both Iran and the United States, has made clear it fears being caught in the middle and having the two countries fight on its soil.
A rocket struck near the United States Embassy in Baghdad on Sunday evening. The United States played down the significance of the attack, no one claimed responsibility and there were no injuries or damage, but it was a reminder of the fragility of the situation.
Reporting was contributed by Alissa J. Rubin from Baghdad, Eric Schmitt from Tampa. Fla., Edward Wong and Rick Gladstone from New York and Adam Goldman from Washington.