The Trump administration has claimed for weeks to have intelligence showing Iran is planning to attack Americans in the Middle East. But Democrats in Congress who have reviewed some of the intelligence are pushing back, arguing the situation’s not as dangerous as Republicans say.
Earlier this month, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced the US was deploying an aircraft carrier and bomber planes to the Persian Gulf in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” of threats from Iran.
The move, Bolton said, was meant “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” He said that the US “is not seeking war with the Iranian regime,” but added, “we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.”
While few doubt that credible intelligence of Iranian threats exists, the disagreement lies over just how serious — and how imminent — they are. Republicans, both in the administration and Congress, have made the case that Iran’s actions are purposefully provocative.
After a briefing with National Security Adviser John Bolton on Monday, administration ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted, “It is clear that over the last several weeks Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq. ... If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated we must deliver an overwhelming military response.”
But now Democrats have begun to counter the Trump administration’s narrative, and it could signal a major fight in the days to come.
What Democrats say about the Iran intelligence
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), an outspoken critic of Trump’s foreign policy and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted Monday that he too knows what the intelligence says. But he has a completely different take.
“I‘m listening to Republicans twist the Iran intel to make it sound like Iran is taking unprovoked, offensive measures against the US and our allies. Like it just came out of nowhere,” he said. “I’ve read the intel too. And let me be clear: That’s not what the intel says.”
He’s not alone. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a retired Marine, also responded directly to Graham on Twitter Monday. “Lindsey and I get the same intel. That is not what is being said,” he wrote. “This is total information bias to draw the conclusion he wants for himself and the media.”
These statements represent a change in tone from even a few days ago. For example, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last Thursday after a briefing with the White House on Iran that “it’s very important that more members hear this story.” Even when pressed, he offered few specifics or criticisms.
Now Democrats are openly accusing the administration and Republicans of inflating the Iran threat, which many already suspected officials like Bolton of doing. The newfound directness makes sense as Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are noted Iran hawks who have advocated for regime change in the past. Trump, however, has signaled he doesn’t want a war with Iran, although he relishes his hardline stance against the Islamic Republic.
Pompeo will lead a congressional briefing on Tuesday to show lawmakers more of the intelligence the administration has, perhaps in an effort to make a case that the US should consider a more forceful response and win over skeptical Democrats.
Still, there clearly is fear among the left and some in the general public that Washington and Tehran are headed for war — a fight that could lead to hundreds of thousands killed — potentially on the basis of overhyped intelligence.
The chance of full-on war between the two sides is still pretty low, but the possibility for miscalculation is high. On Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN that the US “having all these military assets in a small area is in of itself prone to accidents, extreme prudence is required and the United States is playing a very, very dangerous game.”
Iran is certainly playing a dangerous game, too. It’s no surprise, then, that some Democrats have started to speak up in order to stave off a potential conflict. The question is how successful they’ll be.