Baltimore (AFP) - Congressional Republicans gathering for their annual winter retreat Thursday assailed the Obama administration for a lack of "backbone" in dealing with Iran, warning that US weakness is destabilizing an already-volatile region.
The gathering is aimed at formulating the party's congressional agenda in a presidential election year and beyond.
While there were breakout sessions on reducing poverty, improving economic innovation, and replacing President Barack Obama's health care law, national security was at the fore.
Highlighting the importance of the issue to Republicans in an election year, Jordan's King Abdullah, a key US ally in the region, addressed the retreat Wednesday night in a closed-door setting.
Speaking a day after a crisis was averted with Tehran's release of 10 US Navy sailors whose ships drifted into Iranian waters, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce said Washington was getting "rolled" by the Islamic republic over the nuclear deal reached last year with world powers, and in the latest Gulf incident.
Iran's navy also test-fired rockets near a US warship in December, two months after it provoked the West by launching a medium-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
"This is very destabilizing in the region," Royce told reporters, accusing the administration of failing to tamp down the "aggressive" posturing by Iran.
"Iran is on a roll, and the perception is that the... administration is getting rolled at this moment," he added.
"We need to see more backbone, not backing down."
Republicans were furious when Obama failed to mention the detention of the navy personnel during his State of the Union speech, which he delivered just hours after Iran had seized the US crews.
Video showing the US sailors kneeling and with their hands clasped behind their heads, and one of them apologizing, aired on US television Wednesday, further angering lawmakers.
"The morning of a State of the Union address, the fact that Iran would actually capture two naval vessels... and that the president of the US would not even talk about that, would almost ignore the fact that we've got problems with national security," Steve Scalise, the number three House Republican, told reporters at the retreat.
"That would have never happened if our enemies were afraid of America's strength in the world."
Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump shared the assessment of several lawmakers at the retreat, that the Gulf incident was a US embarrassment.
"Do you think Iran would have acted so tough if they were Russian sailors? Our country was humiliated," the celebrity billionaire posted on Twitter hours before he and other Republican candidates take the stage for their latest presidential primary debate.
Meanwhile, Iran announced it has removed the core of its Arak heavy water reactor, a crucial step under the soon-to-be-implemented nuclear deal.
Royce and other Republicans warned that Iran would soon be claiming tens of billions of dollars worth of sanctions relief, money some lawmakers say will go towards enriching the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and funding terrorist groups.