WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Sasse said Wednesday that the pace of Senate Intelligence Committee updates on the fluid Middle East situation has increased this week to near-hourly.
“The situation with Iran is very tense and very bad,” the Nebraska Republican told those at the state congressional delegation’s weekly breakfast for visiting constituents.
Sasse’s comments came shortly after the United States ordered all nonessential government staff to leave Iraq.
Germany and the Netherlands also both suspended their military assistance programs in the country in the latest sign of tensions sweeping the Persian Gulf region over still-unspecified threats that the Trump administration says are linked to Iran.
Some U.S. allies have expressed skepticism about the magnitude of the latest Iranian threats, and some Democrats have questioned the administration’s approach, citing lessons learned from the run-up to the Iraq War.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for example, said on the floor Wednesday that Americans are weary of war in the Middle East and its cost in both lives and treasure.
“The American people deserve to know what’s going on,” Schumer said. “If the president and Republicans in Congress are planning to take the United States into a conflict, even a war, in the Middle East, the American people deserve to know that and they deserve to know why.”
Recent days have seen allegations of sabotage targeting oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a drone attack by Yemen’s Iranian-allied Houthi rebels, and the dispatch of U.S. warships and bombers to the region.
President Donald Trump decided a year ago to pull the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, embarking on a maximalist sanctions campaign against Tehran. In response, Iran’s supreme leader issued a veiled threat Tuesday, saying it wouldn’t be difficult for the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.
The movement of diplomatic personnel is often done in times of conflict, but what is driving the decisions from the White House remains unclear. A high-ranking British general said there was no new threat from Iran or its regional proxies, something immediately rebutted by the U.S. military’s Central Command, which said its troops were on high alert, without elaborating.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said it appears Iran is the culprit behind various bad actions and that it can’t be allowed to attack U.S. interests or allies without retribution.
“I don’t think the administration will ever put troops in Iran, but we could punish them from the air and the sea and make them hurt if they attack us,” Bacon said.
In his comments to Nebraskans, Sasse said the administration has been moving to clip the wings of Qassem Soleimani. The Iranian general is trying to sow discord across the Middle East and North Africa, Sasse said, in an effort to make Iran more powerful.
“He has militias he basically controls, and he’s trying to ramp a lot of these people up to attack U.S. allies, U.S. interests, U.S. supply chains and ultimately U.S. troops,” Sasse said.
In an interview, Sasse told The World-Herald that whether tensions escalate further is almost entirely dependent on whether Soleimani continues to push for attacks on Americans and their interests.
“The administration is taking appropriate steps to let Iran know that our intelligence forces know what they’ve been doing and Iran should be de-escalating and they’re choosing not to de-escalate,” Sasse said. “What I’ve heard the president say on this is two things — he wants to avoid war and if the US is attacked, we’ll respond very, very forcefully and I think the president is right in how he’s framing both of those points.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.