The Trump administration is trying to assure Congress that it does not want to start a war with Iran, but some lawmakers who fought in Iraq are not so sure.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford both briefed Congress on Tuesday about Iran. Shanahan told reporters earlier on Tuesday that the U.S. military buildup in the region has stopped Iran and its proxies from attacking U.S. forces, but the crisis is not yet over.
"We've put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans," Shanahan said. "That doesn't mean that the threats that we've previously identified have gone away. Our prudent response, I think, has given the Iranians time to recalculate. I think our response was a measure of our will and our resolve that we will protect our people and our interests in the region."
Yet Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said he is worried the United States is drifting toward confrontation with Iranian forces similar to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, which served as the pretext for expanding the U.S. military's commitment to the Vietnam War.
He told Task & Purpose that he left Tuesday's briefing with Shanahan and Dunford "more concerned than when I went in" that the Trump administration is looking for an excuse to start a war with Iran.
"Everything I have said to date about how concerned I am with this administration's push toward war – the fact that there are certain people in the administration who are pushing for regime change in Iran – was reinforced by this briefing," said Moulton, who is one of nearly two dozen Democrats trying to win his party's nomination to run against President Donald Trump in 2020.
Moulton claimed that White House National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for trying to push the United States towards a military confrontation with Iran.
On May 5, Bolton announced that the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its strike group along with a bomber task force would deploy to the U.S. Central Command region in response to unspecified threats from Iran. Since then, the U.S. military has also dispatched the amphibious transport dock USS Arlington and a Patriot missile battery to the Middle East.
Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, requested the reinforcements in light of intelligence showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards were loading missiles aboard commercial ships and other indications that Iran and its proxies were planning to attack U.S. troops in the region, a defense official told reporters on May 10.
Before meeting with lawmakers on Tuesday, Shanahan stressed to reporters that the U.S. military is deployed to the Middle East for a variety of missions, "Not to go to war with Iran."
"We're in a period where the threat remains high and our job is to make sure that there is no miscalculation by the Iranians," Shanahan said. "The most important thing we can do as the [Department of Defense] is avoid miscalculation and control escalation. Our posture is for deterrence."
Still, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who also deployed to Iraq as Marine infantryman to Iraq, said he believes the Trump administration is trying to pick a fight with Iran because Bolton, Pompeo and Republican lawmakers are obsessed with overthrowing the Iranian regime.
"The administration is exaggerating everyday intelligence threats that could be handled through different manners and putting it to a boiling point where it could create a situation that finds us in war," Gallego told Task & Purpose on Tuesday. "When a small incident happens, we find ourselves basically in a shooting war because we escalated so fast."
Not all veterans serving in Congress share Moulton and Gallego's concerns about the United States headed toward another war in the Middle East.
Lawmakers' skepticism about the Trump administration's intentions towards Iran appears to fall along partisan lines. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Green Beret who deployed to Afghanistan several times, expressed support for the U.S. military's response to threats from Iran.
"Our U.S. intelligence is sound on this issue," Waltz said in a statement on Tuesday. "Secretary Pompeo and the administration were clear they do not intend to invade Iran. They are seeking to change Iranian behavior to renegotiate.
"The best way to avoid war with Iran is to show strength. Iranians tend to be emboldened by perceived weakness and are deterred by strength – and the United States is showing strength right now. I'm thankful we're not waiting until after U.S. forces were attacked before responding. We're trying to deter on the front end."