Patrick Shanahan, the acting US defence secretary, on Tuesday attempted to ease concerns about possible military conflict with Iran by stressing that the Trump administration was not seeking war.
“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, or not about going to war,” Mr Shanahan told reporters after briefing Congress about recent unspecified alleged threats from the Islamic Republic.
Mr Shanahan spoke after he joined Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, and General Joe Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, in providing members of the Senate and the House of Representatives with classified briefings about “escalatory action” that the White House says has been recently taken by the Iranian regime.
The White House two weeks ago said the US was sending an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the Middle East after intelligence suggested Iran might be preparing to attack US forces.
Last week the state department said it was withdrawing non-essential personnel from diplomatic missions in Iraq. The rhetoric and moves by the administration — amplified by threatening tweets from Mr Trump — have raised the spectre that the president was considering military action.
Following the briefing for lawmakers, Mr Shanahan said the intelligence about a possible threat had been “borne out in attacks” without providing any details. “I would say it’s also deterred attacks. We have deterred attacks based on our reposturing of assets, deterred attacks against American forces,” he said.
The Pentagon chief’s comments came just two days after Mr Trump tweeted that Iran would meet its “official end” if the regime threatened America again. Asked last week whether the US was heading towards war with the Islamic Republic, Mr Trump replied: “I hope not”. The New York Times last week reported that Mr Trump had told Mr Shanahan that he did not want a military conflict with Iran.
The conflicting signals from the administration in recent days come as the US takes an increasingly hawkish stance towards Tehran one year after Mr Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran has also recently announced that it will no longer comply with elements of the nuclear accord.
Democrats and Republicans had called on the Trump administration to brief lawmakers on the intelligence, amid concerns that the two biggest Iran hawks in the administration — John Bolton, the national security adviser, and Mr Pompeo — were preparing the ground for possible military action.
Lawmakers have been divided over whether the intelligence justified the kind of rhetoric that has emerged from US officials over the past few weeks. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican senator, said the “threat streams from Iran against American interests are real and severe”.
“I’m confident that if the Iranians harm one American, in Iraq or anywhere else, they will pay a heavy price,” Mr Graham said after the briefing. “The Trump administration will respond militarily and in an overwhelming fashion. The Obama-era policy of Iranian appeasement is over. The days of Iran killing Americans without consequence is over.”
Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democratic senator, said the White House approach — an economic and diplomatic pressure campaign — had “pushed Iran further away from the negotiating table”.
“The military deterrent campaign that began earlier this month hasn’t convinced Iran to end their recent provocative actions,” Mr Murphy said. “There is no realistic path to get us out of this blind campaign of escalation, and that should worry the hell out of every American.”
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found that 51 per cent of Americans thought the US would go to war with Iran within a few years — an increase of 8 points from a year ago. The same poll said 49 per cent of Americans disapproved of the way Mr Trump was handling relations with Iran.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi