WASHINGTON – The administration of President Donald Trump said the threat of hostilities with Iran has receded in the face of United States military deployments and sought to assure lawmakers in classified briefings that a war wasn’t imminent.
The briefings were the first for all members of Congress since the Trump administration more than two weeks ago declared a threat of an imminent Iranian attack and deployed several warships and bombers to the region.
While some congressional leaders and other lawmakers have been briefed on the situation, many have complained that they had been left in the dark, and several left Tuesday’s sessions saying they had been given conflicting information about the nature of the threat.
“We’re told that Iran is less threatening from what we’ve seen as a result of our actions,” said Rep. Adam Smith (Democrat, Washington), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “There’s a lot going on in a lot of different places, so I would hesitate to say it’s de-escalated at this point.
“That’s a difficult thing to calculate,” he added.
Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, one of the officials who briefed lawmakers, said earlier Tuesday at the Pentagon that the prospect of an Iranian attack on Americans has been put “on hold,” outlining a reduction of the potential threat after earlier US intelligence suggested a high degree of danger.
“I think our steps were very prudent, and we’ve put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans,” Shanahan told reporters. “And that’s what’s extremely important.”
Some lawmakers pressed administration officials to be more open with the American public about potential threats of Iranian hostility and the US response.
“I think that would be helpful. I think one of the criticisms that was bipartisan was they didn’t talk to us,” said Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) after the classified briefing.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska) agreed, saying: “One of the things I mentioned in my remarks was that it would be useful, that some of this could be talked about more publicly, that would not reveal sources and methods. To the extent we could do that, that was my recommendation.”
Shanahan said after the House and Senate briefings that he would seek to communicate more closely with Capitol Hill.
“We had a very good conversation with both the House and the Senate and we heard feedback that they’d like more conversation and they’d like us to be more communicative with the American public, and we agreed to do more of that,” he said.
Lawmakers were divided over whether the Trump administration was correctly interpreting the potential threat, with some saying the briefing emphasized the need for the military preparations.
“It was, I think, intended to create an atmosphere that would make some members of Congress believe that there is a reason we should be going to war with Iran,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (Democrat, Arizona), a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Republicans and some Democrats said that officials focused on how to deter Iran. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, said Iranian activity in the region merited the US military buildup.
“They are different than the regular everyday serious threats from Iran. These are specific and credible enough to warrant an immediate response in terms of positioning assets in the region,” he said.
US intelligence in early May suggested Iran and its allies were planning attacks on US interests, prompting the deployment of US warships and bombers.
The Trump administration hasn’t detailed the intelligence, although officials have said that the military was concerned by indications that Iran or allied groups were transporting missiles on small boats and engaging in surveillance on American forces.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said Tuesday that the US military is creating risks by crowding ships and aircraft into the region, although Iran doesn’t intend to attack anyone.
“The United States is playing a very, very dangerous game,” he said on CNN.
President Trump and his administration have provided shifting assessments of Iran’s actions and varying explanations of prospects for a diplomatic outcome.
Over the weekend, Trump warned that if there were a conflict, “that will be the official end of Iran.”
On Monday, he said the US has no indication of hostile Iranian intentions. “If they do something, it’ll be met with great force. But we have no indication that they will,” he said.
White House officials declined to elaborate on Trump’s comments.
Trump and his aides have played down the prospect of talks. On Monday, Trump said no talks were taking place but that he would be willing to negotiate.
Zarif said Iran wasn’t interested in negotiations with the US unless it treated Iran with respect.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who also briefed lawmakers, said that an Iranian decision to release American detainees would represent a sign of good faith that could support talks. Zarif recently proposed an exchange of detainees between Iran and the West.
At least four US citizens and one legal US resident are known to be held by Iran.