US senators demand evidence on increased Iran threat

US lawmakers have demanded to see intelligence on the increased threat the Trump administration says Iran poses to American interests as questions grow about the evidence on which Washington’s claims are based.

Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said on Thursday that it was “hard to justify” the administration’s position on Iran as it had refused to provide Congress with “specifics about what these increased threats actually are”.

Tensions are running high between Washington and Tehran following a series of warnings by US officials of unspecified “escalatory action” by Iran, which have been accompanied by US military deployments to the region.

Mr Menendez said senators were requesting “a comprehensive briefing from appropriate, senior level, administration officials on exactly what these increased threats are, and whether there is consensus within our intelligence community and the broader national security structure.”

John Bolton — the US national security adviser who has in the past called for regime change in Iran — announced last week that the US was deploying an aircraft carrier strike group, bombers and other military assets to the Middle East as he talked up the threat he said Iran posed. He said the US would respond to any attack with “unrelenting force”.

But US President Donald Trump this week dismissed a report that defence officials are revising a plan that envisaged the US deploying up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacked American forces.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, said the administration had “no authorisation” to declare war with Iran. “I like what I hear from the president that he has no appetite for this. It’s one of the places where I agree with the president,” said Ms Pelosi, who added that some of Mr Trump’s supporters were “rattling sabres”.

On Wednesday the US ordered the departure of all non-essential staff from its diplomatic missions in Iraq, citing security concerns.

The New York Times reported that the intelligence behind the White House warnings on the Iranian threat comprised photographs of suspected Iranian missiles on board boats in the Gulf.

However, Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said the president was responding to a “wide range of intelligence information”, and not “just” the pictures.

On Wednesday Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator, said: “I would urge the state department and [Pentagon] to come down here and explain to us what’s going on because I have no idea what the threat stream is beyond what I read in the paper.”

Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, has demanded a full briefing from acting defence secretary Patrick Shanahan and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Intelligence officials are expected to brief a small number of lawmakers, including Ms Pelosi, on Thursday afternoon.

Adding to nervousness in the region, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said on Thursday that it had conducted a series of air strikes on Houthi rebels in retaliation for attacks on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure in recent days.

The Iran-aligned Houthis claimed responsibility for a drone attack on Saudi oil pumping stations earlier this week. Riyadh said the attack caused “limited damage” to the stations run by Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, on its east-west pipeline.

The drone attack came days after two Saudi oil tankers were among four vessels struck in a sabotage operation off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the ship attacks. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are Mr Trump’s staunchest Arab allies in his efforts to counter Iran’s regional influence.

Arab News, a Saudi pro-government paper, on Thursday called for surgical strikes against Iran, saying the Trump administration had set a precedent by bombing Syria in the wake of gas attacks.

“There has to be deterrent and punitive action in order for Iran to know that no sinister act will go unpunished; that action, in our opinion, should be a calculated surgical strike,” the paper said.

Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign minister, said that Britain shared “the same assessment of the heightened threat posed by Iran”.

“As always we work closely with the US,” he said on Twitter.

Britain’s Foreign Office was frustrated that comments by the British deputy commander of the US-led coalition against Isis were interpreted as the UK’s government position and signalled scepticism about the US’s warnings in London, an official said.

In a video briefing with the Pentagon on Tuesday, Major General Christopher Ghika had said there was “no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria”.

On Thursday, the UK defence ministry raised the threat level for its troops stationed in Iraq.

Although the UK says British troops do not have a combat role in Iraq, Britain has 400 soldiers on the ground, working with allies in the global coalition against Isis, providing training and equipment to Iraqi and Kurdish security forces.

The defence ministry declined to comment on why the threat level had been raised or whether it was connected to a specific Iranian security threat against British or allied assets in the region.

The Netherlands and Germany said earlier this week that they would be suspending their military training missions in the country.

Additional reporting by Ahmed Al Omran in Hofuf

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