The State Department’s top official on Iran declined Wednesday to rule out the possibility that the Trump administration might justify a military confrontation with Tehran using the 2001 law that authorized the Afghanistan war.
Brian Hook, the department’s special representative for Iran, insisted that any move President Donald Trump makes would be legally sound. But that is unlikely to reassure Democrats and some Republicans who say the president is dangerously escalating tensions with Iran and are fearful Trump’s team will bypass Congress to launch military strikes against the country.
“We’re not seeking military action,” Hook told lawmakers at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East subpanel. He added, however, that if it comes down to such a confrontation, “we will do everything that we are required to do with respect to congressional war powers, and we will comply with the law.”
Hook’s appearance on Capitol Hill comes as the U.S. and Iran are engaged in a standoff in the wake of attacks on oil tankers in the Middle East that Washington blames on Tehran. Iran also said this week that it would soon violate limits on its nuclear program set under a 2015 international agreement.
Democratic New York Rep. Eliot Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was among the lawmakers who pushed Hook on the question of whether the Trump administration believes the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force would cover a military battle with Iran.
“I see a growing risk of miscalculation,” Engel said.
That AUMF was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It is generally interpreted as giving congressional authorization for U.S. military action in Afghanistan, as well as against al-Qaida and its affiliates.
In recent weeks, some Trump administration officials have tried to suggest that Iran has more substantial links to al-Qaida than is generally believed. That, combined with Trump’s expressed desire to often act unilaterally, has fueled concerns that the administration may invoke the 2001 measure to justify a military battle with Iran.
Hook deferred lawmakers to administration lawyers on the question of the AUMF, but he said “no” when asked if Iran was one of the entities responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Hook did not rule out the possibility of a war with Iran, although he at one point said that as far as the U.S. is thinking now, “There is no talk of offensive action. It’s a defensive move.”
Hook also said the Trump team’s efforts to starve Iran’s Islamist regime of revenue that it uses to pay militias and terrorist groups in the Middle East is working.
“Hezbollah has placed piggy banks in grocery stores and in retail outlets,” Hook said, referring to the Iran-affiliated militia and political movement in Lebanon that the U.S. classifies as a terrorist group.
The Trump administration wants Iran to come to the negotiating table in the hopes of hammering out an agreement that covers at least four key areas, Hook added: ending Tehran’s nuclear program; curbing its ballistic missile program; stopping its support for terrorist groups and other militias; and halting Iran’s arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens.
“No one should be uncertain about our desire for peace or our readiness to normalize relations” with Iran, Hook said.
In recent days, both Iranian and American officials have simultaneously tried to de-escalate the situation while nonetheless holding out the possibility of military action. Trump, for instance, downplayed the oil tanker attacks in a Time interview earlier this week, and a senior Iranian official on Wednesday said “there will not be a military confrontation” between his country and the U.S.
But the Pentagon did announce on Monday that it was sending an extra 1,000 troops to the Middle East for “defensive purposes.”
Hook insisted on the soundness of U.S. intelligence linking Iran to the attacks on the oil tankers, and he dismissed concerns voiced by Democrats that the Trump administration is cherry-picking the information it is receiving.
At one point, referring to the attacks on two oil tankers last week, Hook said: "A senior IRGC official confirmed that personnel, IRGC personnel, had completed two actions," referencing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a major Iranian military force.
It was not clear if Hook was saying an IRGC official confirmed the information to the United States or whether the U.S. had picked up that intelligence through other means, such as intercepts.
Iran and the United States have been adversaries for 40 years, and they do not officially have diplomatic relations. But the relationship has grown especially rocky since May 2018, when Trump decided to pull the United States out of the internationally negotiated nuclear deal with Iran.
Trump reimposed nuclear sanctions on Iran that had been removed as part of the deal, and piled on new economic penalties that have badly damaged the Iranian economy.
While Iran’s Islamist government has until now tried to abide by its part of the agreement and restrict its nuclear program, it said this week that it would likely breach some of those restrictions before the end of the month.
Iran’s announcement, as well as the tanker attacks, which Iran denies a role in, have deepened a rift between the U.S. and European allies who have tried to salvage the nuclear deal.
The rising tensions also come as Trump’s pick to lead the Pentagon, Patrick Shanahan, announced this week that he was resigning. Shanahan will hand the acting Pentagon chief role to Mark Esper, currently secretary of the Army.