WASHINGTON ― U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo received a blunt assessment from Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign" against Iran: It’s not working.
Congressional Democrats have been sharply critical of the administration’s shifting justification for its Jan. 3 drone strike against Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, arguing that Tehran immediately replaced Soleimani with his deputy and that the country is still enriching nuclear material. Their frustrations were on display as Pompeo appeared Friday for the committee hearing.
“Weeks later, we’ve seen attacks that have injured more than 100 service members, the need to move thousands more personnel back to the region, a derailment in our relationship with Iraq, a setback in our fight against ISIS and Iraq pushing headlong toward a nuclear weapon,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
“You promised the American people that they would be safer and Iran would be deterred, so by your own metrics, this policy has been a failure.”
Iranian-backed militias have reportedly resumed attacks in the Middle East, specifically on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and Iraqi bases where U.S. troops are stationed. And Iran was caught this month shipping anti-aircraft missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Though the U.S. and Iran appear to have pulled back from the brink of war, Congress has a chance to influence the ongoing tension, as the House is expected to vote soon to require that President Donald Trump seek congressional authorization before taking further military action against Iran, a measure the Senate passed on Feb. 13.
Those tensions have been steadily escalating since 2018, when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal with other world powers. The Trump administration reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran as part of its “maximum pressure campaign” on the Islamic republic.
Iran since has broke terms of the 2015 deal that limited its enrichment of uranium. During the hearing, Pompeo conceded Iran has more enriched uranium than when Trump took office.
Thursday’s hearing, full of partisan outrage, heated exchanges and interruptions, echoed the 2014 and 2015 Benghazi hearings in which Pompeo, as a member of Congress, rose to prominence. Early on, Rep. Gregory Meeks blasted Pompeo for agreeing to sit for only two hours when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat for 11 hours before the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
“We had to move heaven and Earth to get you here for just two hours,” Meeks, D-N.Y., told Pompeo, who was scheduled to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference later in the day.
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Pompeo and panel Republicans have argued the Dec. 27 killing of an American interpreter in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias and the Dec. 31 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by supporters of an Iranian-backed militia were part of a pattern that would have escalated without Soleimani’s death.
“We might be having a different hearing on why [Trump] didn’t stop the deaths of more Americans," said Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, and the panel’s ranking member.
While Pompeo at least twice declined to discuss in an unclassified setting Iran’s actions in response to the strike, he claimed it had reduced the risk to U.S. personnel overseas and that U.S. sanctions have crippled Iran’s ability to fund Hezbollah.
“We’re willing and able to impose cost on our adversaries if they threaten or attack us,” Pompeo said. “I know that, sadly, some American troops were injured during Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missile attack on Al Asad air force base. The limited nature of Iran’s counterattack, however, indicates that Iran’s leadership is not eager to escalate a military confrontation. They know if they fight, they lose. That’s deterrence, it’s our policy.”
Americans appear to have some mixed views of Trump’s decision to take out Iran’s Quds Force commander. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that 53 percent of Americans support it, but that 48 percent felt that the decision raised the chances of terrorism against U.S. citizens and 46 percent believed there was a greater likelihood of a war with Tehran.
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Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., a former CIA operative, was among Democrats who questioned Pompeo about the administration’s shifting explanations to justify the strike.
Though Pompeo said Jan. 10 he had specific information about an imminent threat to include attacks on U.S. embassies, he gave a classified briefing to Congress that ― according to Spanberger ― didn’t share that evidence. Nor did the administration repeat the claim in its legally mandated justification to Congress, received Jan. 31.
“When the administration was constrained by the law to tell the truth,” Spanberger said, “you abandon the talking points.”
Pompeo objected, saying there were “material misstatements” in Spanberger’s comments, but he was denied time to explain what they were. When asked later which embassies had been under threat, Pompeo said: “I’m never willing to disclose classified material.”
In another tense exchange, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., pressed Pompeo to apologize on behalf of the president for “trivializing” the traumatic brain injuries suffered by U.S. troops when Iran attacked Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. (Though the president initially said the injuries at Al Asad weren’t serious, the numbers of troops injured in the attack has grown to more than 109, as of the most recent count.)
Pompeo said the president hadn’t trivialized any injuries: "We take seriously every American service member’s life. It’s why we’ve taken the very policies in Iran that we have.”
Multiple Republicans complained about the tone of the hearing. When Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., called the proceedings an “embarrassment” because Pompeo was being cut off and interrupted, Engel interjected.
“What’s really an embarrassment is we can’t get more than two hours from the secretary of state,” Engel said.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.