House Underscores Role of Congress as Tensions With Iran Rise

This false-color satellite image shows smoke from the Norwegian-owned MT Front Altair, bottom right. The United States blamed Iran; Iran denied it. To the left are the United Arab Emirates and Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, to the right, Iran. (European Commission via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Wading into Mideast tensions brought to a boiling point last week by attacks on two oil tankers, House Democrats warned the government’s top Iran official Wednesday that any military action the Trump administration has planned must first go through Congress.

“If the administration sees a threat that requires military force against Iran, your first step is right here on Capitol Hill,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel said.

The New York congressman was one of several Democrats on the committee who voiced concern that the administration will take action against Iran by co-opting the 2001 declaration in which Congress authorized war against groups tied to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Multiple news reports this week suggest that administration officials have been floating just such a possibility in both private conversations and public appearances.

Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, meanwhile denied that the administration intends to take military action against Iran, telling the committee Wednesday that the recent deployment of troops to the region were purely defensive purposes.

Hook did not answer directly, however, when Democrats pressed him on whether the administration has plans to cite the 2001 declaration as authorizing war against Iran, instead saying the administration will follow the law if it decides to take military action.

“If the use of military force is necessary to defend U.S. national security interests, we will do everything that we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers and we will comply with the law,” Hook said.

Hook spent nearly two hours Wednesday before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism, attempting to rebut Democrats’ suggestions that Trump paved the way toward heightened tensions with Iran by isolating the U.S. from key allies, withdrawing from the international nuclear agreement governing Iran, and imposing heavy sanctions.

“Our pressure campaign is working,” Hook said Wednesday. “It is making Iran’s violent and expansionist foreign policy cost-prohibitive.”

Hook’s testimony comes less than a week after two oil tankers sailing through the Gulf of Oman suffered explosions, and amid threats from Iran that it intends to exceed the limits on enriched uranium it facs under the international compact from which the United States withdrew last year.

Though United States has pinned the tanker attacks on Iran, few Democrats appeared willing today to discount that it was the U.S. that set the tone with its treatment of Iran since the election of President Donald Trump.

“Rather than leading a unified international response to an attack on global commerce, the Trump administration’s having trouble convincing even our closest allies to push back on Iran,” Representative Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said at the hearing.

Hook said the administration is working to declassify more information about the attacks to persuade those who still have not signed on to that assessment.

“We’re going to keep doing what we can to declassify intelligence without compromising sources and methods, but those who have been able to see the intelligence, and you’ve mentioned many of those people, all come away without any question that Iran is behind these attacks,” Hook said.

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