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What 2 senators took away from intelligence briefing on Iran

Heightened tensions with Iran prompted a congressional intelligence briefing on Tuesday. As Nick Schifrin reports, senators attending the session came away with differing impressions of the situation, with Sen. Bob Menendez expressing concern about the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign, while Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, expressed "real confidence" in the U.S. strategy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tensions with Iran are on the rise. The Trump administration claims Tehran is planning attacks on U.S. forces and on allies in the Middle East.

    But Mr. Trump also says he doesn't want war with Iran.

    Nick Schifrin reports on how, today, the Senate was briefed on the intelligence that is underlying an increase in the American military presence in the region.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This afternoon, top national security officers arrived on Capitol Hill to brief the House and Senate. And afterward, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said the U.S. military had been responding to Iranian actions.

  • Patrick Shanahan:

    We received credible intelligence about threats to our interests in the Middle East and to American forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today's briefing comes at the end of a dramatic few weeks. On May the 5th, after the administration said it received intelligence of a — quote — "imminent attack" on U.S. forces and allies, National Security Adviser John Bolton released a statement promising any Iranian attack would be met with — quote — "unrelenting force."

    He accelerated the deployment of an aircraft carrier group and bombers to the Middle East.

  • Gen. Joseph Dunford:

    We sent some messages to make sure that it was clear to Iran that we recognized the threat and we were postured to respond to the threat.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On May the 8th, Iran vowed to exceed 2015 nuclear deal caps on stockpiles and threatened to exceed caps on uranium enrichment.

  • Majid Takht-Ravanchi:

    We have not received the economic benefit that we were promised to receive based on the nuclear deal. And then we were left with no other option.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On May 13, four oil tankers were attacked, and U.S. officials told the "NewsHour" they believed the attacks were directed by Iran. Alarmed allies urged the U.S. to avoid escalation.

  • Federica Mogherini:

    The most responsible attitude to take is, and we believe should be, that of maximum restraint.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On May 15, the U.S. withdrew non-emergency personnel from Iraq, citing a threat from Iran. But, by then, President Trump tried to defuse tensions. He told acting Shanahan he didn't want war. And, on May 16, he said this:

  • Question:

    Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran?

  • Donald Trump:

    Hope not.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, on May 19, a rocket attack landed less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Iranian-backed militia commanders later disavowed the attack.

    And, today, Shanahan suggested that military deployments had prevented Iranian attacks.

    We now hear from two senators who were at today's briefing.

    We begin with New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    Senator Menendez, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Were you reassured by the intelligence that was presented today and the U.S. actions in response to that intelligence over the last couple weeks?

  • Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.:

    Well, I'm not reassured that we don't have an environment in which a miscalculation on either side can take place, a miscalculation that then can accelerate into a more major conflict. And so that is deeply concerning to me and still remains concerning, especially after everything I heard.

    And the second part that I am also very concerned about is that I do not get a sense from the administration that they have a strategy to take their maximum pressure campaign and turn it into a diplomatic opportunity to resolve Iran's nuclear desires at a negotiating table.

    The combination of those two things leaves me very unsettled after the hearing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, I want to ask you about the strategy in a second, but about the intelligence itself, just a couple of words from some of your Republican colleagues.

    Senator Graham said that the intelligence revealed the ayatollah himself directed some of the attacks that we have seen in the Middle East in the last few days. And Mike McCaul, ranking member House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican, said that Iran carried out and launched several attacks.

    So, is that what the intelligence shows?

  • Sen. Robert Menendez:

    Well, first of all, I don't know how one can comment on the intelligence itself, because it's classified.

    But I will say this, that the environment has changed as a result of the maximum pressure campaign that has been brought against Iran. Yes, that has changed. Has the ayatollah said that we are in the midst of a challenge, and how do you respond to that? Yes, that has changed.

    But the reality is, is that I don't know that I find direct evidence of what my colleague suggested. I think that's an extrapolation that's a bit too far.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Over the last couple weeks, we have seen U.S. military move, both an aircraft carrier group, bombers to the region, Patriot missiles. The administration calls this defensive, calls it deterrence. And administration officials say that that has successfully prevented Iran from attacking.

    Is that what you believe?

  • Sen. Robert Menendez:

    Well, I don't know that, in fact, an attack didn't take place because of the U.S. actions.

    I will say that to characterize the intelligence, there was a heightened concern. I understand that. And there was a response to that concern. I don't know that one can say that, in fact, there were no actions as a result of that. And I'm not sure that, in the midst of having all of that presence in the region and a continuing maximum pressure campaign that has no off-ramp, that we are not building a pressure cooker that, eventually, if there is no pressure outlet, will explode.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that brings us back to the strategy, Senator.

    The administration says their maximum pressure campaign has been successful. They specifically cite that Hezbollah is less able to conduct actions in the Middle East.

    Do you believe the strategy has been successful so far and will be successful going forward?

  • Sen. Robert Menendez:

    Well, the maximum pressure campaign, the success of it is measured ultimately by whether or not you can get Iran back to a negotiating table to fix the deficiencies in the JCPOA, to ensure that it doesn't have a pathway towards nuclear weapons. That will be the ultimate determination.

    I think it's a little early to declare mission accomplished as a result of the maximum pressure campaign. So, yes, has Iran been affected by the new leveling of sanctions and other decisions the administration has levied? Absolutely. Are they hurting in their economy? Absolutely.

    But the fundamental question, what I walked away from this briefing not having any sense of, is that there is parallel track to cash in on the maximum pressure campaign, which is to get Iran back to the negotiating table. And I think that that's a dangerous proposition.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thank you very much.

  • Sen. Robert Menendez:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we now we turn to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch.

    Senator, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's start with the big picture and what you just heard from Senator Menendez there, fears about the strategy and fears that the U.S. isn't, as he put it, cashing in.

    Do you believe that the U.S. has a strategy that is successful and effective right now?

  • Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho:

    You know, I not only believe that. I also believe that their options are very, very narrow. Our options are very, very narrow.

    I have real confidence in the strategy that is being pursued and also the team that's pursuing it. We had a number of people in front of us today briefing us, including the secretary of state, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acting secretary of defense, who talked about how they came together and responded to the recent uptick of activity on the part of the Iranians.

    I think they handled it absolutely as well as it could be handled. And, look, we do not want war with the Iranians. And we have heard the president say that. There isn't anybody in this building that wants war with the Iranians.

    Having said that, the ball is in their court. They every day commit malign activities that is designed to aggravate us to, to hurt us. Indeed, there's thousands of U.S. soldiers who were either killed or injured in recent years in the Middle East, all because of Iran's malign activity.

    So the ball is in their court. They have been told by the U.N. what they can't do. And they know that the malign things that they're doing, like being the chief sponsor of terrorism in the world, really, that that can't continue.

    You know, this business of launching a rocket attack on our embassy in Iraq is an attack against U.S. soil. People are saying, oh, the president wants to go to war. If he wanted to go to war, he had a perfect excuse right there, and, instead…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let me ask you about that attack.

    Mr. Chair, sorry to — forgive me for interrupting, but let me ask you about that attack. Are you suggesting that Iran specifically ordered that attack on the U.S. Embassy?

  • Sen. James Risch:

    I am.

    I think that what you have is people who are either Iranian or who are proxies who have been armed, trained, and ordered to commit those attacks — and I include this one in those attacks — as having done that.

    So, look, whether it's Iranians or whether it's the proxies, the Hezbollah or the Houthis or radical Shia groups that are active in Iraq, if they're armed by, trained by, and ordered by Iran to commit an attack, as far as I'm concerned, that's an attack by Iran.

    If you hire somebody to do something, you can't say, well, I'm not responsible for this. Of course they're responsible for this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senator Risch, in the minute or so we have left, as you heard Senator Menendez say, and Democrats have said this all day, that they risk a miscalculation, that they risk increasing U.S. forces to the region, where U.S. forces are operating near Iranian forces.

    There could be some kind of accident, some kind of miscalculation. Do you worry about that right now?

  • Sen. James Risch:

    Of course. Everybody worries about miscalculations.

    But it is going to be miscalculations on the part of the Iranians. We know what we're doing. We know where we're going. We know what the intelligence is.

    I think the Iranians have a tendency to miscalculate. I really believe that the action that's been taken by the administration, sending the Naval forces that they did, sending the bombers that they did, convinced the Iranians that they were miscalculating it.

    And if they keep picking at us like they are, they're going to have direct deaths of Americans. And nobody's going to stand by and let Iran do that. They need to stand down. They need to recalculate and recalibrate what they're doing. And everything is going to be just fine, if they will do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senator James Risch, Republican of Idaho and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thank you very much.

  • Sen. James Risch:

    Thank you.

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