House, Senate Lawmakers Briefed on Latest Tensions With Iran

May 22, 2019
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How reassured are lawmakers about the U.S. approach to Iran? Top administration officials met privately with members of the House and Senate. They offered information about a confrontation that has led to talk of war. Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of defense, walked out with a reassuring message. We do not want this situation to escalate, he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK SHANAHAN: This is about deterrence, not about war. We're not about going to war.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about this with Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, who was in that meeting. Good morning, sir.

ADAM KINZINGER: Hey, good morning. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: We should note, of course, that the administration in recent days has moved ships toward the Persian Gulf and issued warnings after receiving some kind of worrisome intelligence. But we should note that the British, close U.S. allies, were not so worried. Did you get a clear picture of what the intelligence is?

KINZINGER: Yeah, I did. I mean, you know, not to the granular detail. But the fact is the intelligence community believes there was significant, in fact, increased risk, increased posturing by the Iranians. I think the thing we have to keep in mind is this isn't the first time. I mean, the Iranians have attacked U.S. and U.S. troops and interests probably dozens of times in the last few years; you think about even Iraq. So it's not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, I do believe the intelligence community. And I think this is an appropriate response to actually de-escalate because it lets the Iranians know they're coming up to a line that they can't cross.

INSKEEP: Is the administration moving the line a little bit here? Because from what we've heard, we presume it's not Iran's army preparing to attack the United States, which would be suicidal, but Iran operating through some proxy in some possible way. Is the U.S. saying, even operating through a proxy, that's something that could trigger war, if you're not careful?

KINZINGER: I think so, and I think it should. You know, we've had this concern even under President Obama, when the fight against ISIS began, is that Iran would reenergize its Shia militia, especially after the fight against ISIS. So it's certainly a concern we have. I don't think that's moving the goal post, but I do think it's making it clear that Iran, who controls its proxies, whether it's Hezbollah in a number of places or these, you know, Shia militias in Iraq or the Houthi rebels in Yemen, that we're going to consider them basically Iran, if they direct them to attack. So I think it's just taking a strong, firm stand that actually makes conflict in war less likely.

INSKEEP: We should note the broader context here. A little more than a year ago now, the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from a nuclear agreement with Iran. Other nations are still in. The U.S. is cranking up sanctions, trying to prevent Iran from selling any oil outside of its borders. When you look at that, Congressman, do you believe that one year after withdrawing from that nuclear deal that America is safer?

KINZINGER: You know, that's a good question. I don't know in terms of, are we safer at this moment. I think in the long run, we will be. So in just a few years, basically, that nuclear deal begins to actually sunset and starts to allow Iran to go after the sprint towards nuclear weapons. We're going to - you and I are going to be basically the same age when that happens. And so if you look at it...

INSKEEP: Well, I may be a few years older, but I'm sure you will hardly age at all. Go on.

KINZINGER: We'll be a few years older. But you know what I mean. But we'll still be young men out here, you know, and that happens very quickly. So if you look at, you know, what happened in Syria, all - half a million dead Syrians; the investment that Iran has made in Syria to keep up Bashar al-Assad. You look at Lebanon. I just got back from Lebanon. And now Hezbollah there is losing some of their funding because of these sanctions against Iran. So the problem is not that the administration tried to deal with Iran, the Obama administration; the thing is that they dealt with them without putting their wider behavior in the region under that umbrella.

INSKEEP: Which is true - the nuclear deal didn't involve wider behavior, which would have to be addressed some other way. We should note what you said about the nuclear deal. Inspections under that deal continue forever, but some provisions do start going away after a decade, and we're a good deal into the decade; that part is correct. Let me ask one more question along these lines, though. The United States is trying to coordinate a global approach to Iran, which it regards as a threat. Is the United States able to coordinate other nations against Iran when it has such a different position on the nuclear deal?

KINZINGER: I think so. You know, this is where I've been critical of the administration, is in some of the words about our allies. When you talk about NATO and some of the other things, you know, I think words are important. But the United States has the most powerful economy in the world, and frankly, for our European allies, they have a choice to make, you know. Are they going to do business with Iran - basically, a failing country that, you know, doesn't even have the support of its own people, which is important to keep in mind or not? And you know, I think we'll win every time.

INSKEEP: Even though the Europeans disagree, you think ultimately they will go where the United States wants them to go?

KINZINGER: Yeah, I don't think they have a choice, quite honestly. You know, that's what happens when you have the biggest economy in the world. And it may seem unfair, but you know, that's the advantage we have, and that's why we always have to make sure we use it for good and stand up when we think somebody is doing wrong with that.

INSKEEP: Congressman, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

KINZINGER: Any time. Take care.

INSKEEP: Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. And NPR national security correspondent David Welna was listening in to our conversation. David, good morning.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did you hear there that struck you?

WELNA: Well, Congressman Kinzinger spoke of de-escalation, but in fact, we have a situation in the Persian Gulf that seems ripe for miscalculations by both the Iranians and the U.S. When you have an aircraft carrier strike group and heavy bombers deployed to a gulf where a third of the world's oil production passes through, it would seem that you'd have to have some pretty clear definitions about just when those armaments might be used, and I don't think we've seen that. And as things stand now, any kind of perceived provocation could be the spark that ignites another war in the Middle East.

INSKEEP: Now we do have a difficult situation here, don't we? Since, as the congressman pointed out, Iran, if it were to act at all against U.S. interests, would be more likely to do so through other groups which may have their own motivations.

WELNA: The so-called proxies, yes. And it's pretty hard to pin down exactly how much of what's going on right now in the Persian Gulf area is due to Iran itself, how much is due to its proxies. But those proxies may not be completely controlled by Iran. And it's not clear what the U.S. might do if there were an attack in some other part of the Persian Gulf, and would the U.S. carry out reprisals against Iran? There are a lot of Democrats who think that the Trump administration is actually spoiling for a fight with Iran. And by putting these heavy armaments there in the Persian Gulf, it's setting the stage for something more drastic to happen.

INSKEEP: Although I think Democrats were also in this meeting where Patrick Shanahan is saying, we don't want war; this is just about deterrence. Did you hear Democrats reassured when they came out?

KINZINGER: Well, I heard Democrats say they would like to think that that's going to be the case. But they said that the way things stand right now, it doesn't seem like there's a long-term strategy for how to get out of this situation. And that leaves the very real possibility that there might be a war that breaks out as a result of this buildup in the Persian Gulf.

INSKEEP: David, thanks so much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Welna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.