Democrats Leery as Shanahan Says Mideast Moves Are ‘About Deterrence, Not About War’

By Patrick Goodenough | May 21, 2019 | 9:31pm EDT
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speak to media after briefing lawmakers on Iran. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

( – Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefed lawmakers behind closed doors Tuesday on the current tensions with Iran, characterizing the deployment of military assets as a deterrent which Shanahan said appears to be working.

“We do not want the situation to escalate,” Shanahan told reporters afterwards. “This is about deterrence, not about war.”

The partisan divide over the administration’s policies was evident as Democrats and Republicans spoke after the separate House and Senate briefings.

Republicans underlined the “deterrence” aspect, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said President Trump has changed the Iranian regime’s calculus after years of anti-U.S. behavior.

Democrats suggested the administration policies were provocative, with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) speaking of “blind escalation.”

The administration this month sped up the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier task force to the region and sent four B-52 strategic bombers to Qatar, portraying the moves as a warning message to Iran following intelligence pointing to threats to U.S. interests.

Over the past ten days, oil tankers were sabotaged near the Persian Gulf, drones were used to attack a key Saudi oil pipeline, and a rocket landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Speaking after Tuesday’s briefing, Shanahan put a date to the beginning of the episode, saying that on May 3, “we received credible intelligence about threats to our interests in the Middle East and to American forces.”

“That intelligence was borne out in attacks” that have occurred, he said.

Shanahan also said the Pentagon’s response, repositioning military assets, has “deterred attacks against American forces.”

“Our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation,” he said. “We do not want the situation to escalate. This is about deterrence, not about war.”

Alluding to complaints by lawmakers from both parties that Congress has not been briefed sufficiently, Shanahan pledged to be more communicative.

‘Resetting the rules of engagement’

Graham said lawmakers had been told that the attacks on the ships and pipeline had been coordinated by the Iranian regime, which had given its surrogates “more running room, and direction.”

“The decision to send the Abraham Lincoln to the region was to try to deter attacks against American personnel, not to invade or start a war.”

Graham said the U.S. is “resetting the rules of engagement” after 40 years of Iranian aggression.

“We’re letting them know that, you’ve attacked us in the past, you’ve provided IEDs during the Iraq war that killed at least 300 Americans, those days are over. That you’re no longer being – going to be able to come after American interests in the Mideast without suffering the consequence.”

Murphy pointed a finger at the Trump’s administration’s approach to Iran, including its withdrawal from the nuclear deal and recent designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.

He said multiple Republican and Democratic administrations “refused to take the steps that the Trump administration has taken because they knew it would result in the Iranians looking at U.S. assets in the region as targets.”

Although Murphy acknowledged that “nothing we have done justifies attacks on ships and on oil pipelines, he also said that the Iranian actions were “entirely predictable. We knew that by taking these steps the Iranians would push back.”

Contrary to Shanahan’s assertion that deterrent message seems to be working, Murphy said the Iranians “do not seem to be backing down from a standpoint of military provocation, and thus you have to ask whether our strategy is working.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the U.S. entered wars in Vietnam and Iraq based on lies, and that a war in Iran would be “an absolute disaster, far worse than the war with Iraq.”

“I worry very much that intentionally or unintentionally we can create a situation in which a war will take place,” he said.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) expressed support for a policy of deterring bad behavior by warning of a firm response.

“If they [Iranian leaders] believe in the past that when they have attacked Americans there has been no response, that might lead them to conclude that they can do it again without a response,” he said.

“And the reality is, this administration is saying, ‘you know what, if you attack our people there will be a response.’”

Romney said that would hopefully “deter action” on the part of the Iranians.

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