Washington, DC – Members of the US Congress expressed concern on Thursday about the escalating standoff between Iran and the United States and warned that missteps on either side could widen the conflict.
The warnings came after Iran shot down a US military drone on Thursday, saying the drone violated Iranian airspace over the southern coastal province of Hormozgan. But the US disputed the location of the incident, saying that the drone was in international airspace when it was shot down.
US officials briefed senators and representatives in the US Capitol on Thursday morning and House and Senate leaders met President Donald Trump at the White House as he prepared a US response to Iran on Thursday afternoon.
Earlier on Thursday, Trump told reporters that “Iran made a big mistake” and his “country will not stand for it”.
When asked if he would respond militarily, Trump said, “You’ll soon find out.”
Trump later said that the drone downing may have been a mistake by a “loose and stupid” Iranian general.
Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that “the president doesn’t want to go to war with Iran. The Congress doesn’t. The American people don’t.”
But he told Al Jazeera that having said that, “You have a president that is very committed to defending Americans and American interests.”
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal expressed concern that a “miscalculation” on either side may result in a full-blown military conflict.
“My concern is the danger of miscalculation and catastrophic escalation, which is a spiral of military escalation that is prompted by misunderstanding or a deliberate desire for war on the part of hardliners on both sides,” Blumenthal told Al Jazeera after attending a closed-door briefing by Trump administration officials on the situation in the Gulf.
Risch accused Iran of “playing a very dangerous game”.
“They are pushing the envelope to a point where it could be a problem. Most worrying is, it’s obvious they are miscalculating on this and that is very, very dangerous,” he said, adding he thinks Iranian leaders have misjudged Trump’s willingness to respond with force.
“They are saying publicly some things that are clearly miscalculating and there is reason to believe that privately their thoughts are the same, which is very dangerous, which is much more worrisome. They are not dealing with reality.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Thursday that his country does not “seek war, but will zealously defend our skies, land & waters”.
He also gave the exact coordinates at which he said the drone was shot and said that Iran has recovered some debris from the drone in its waters.
Thursday’s downing of the US drone followed suspected attacks on two tanker ships on June 13 that the US said were conducted by Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The Pentagon announced deployment of 1,000 US troops to the region on Monday, adding to 1,500 forces sent in May after suspected attacks on four other tanker ships. Tehran has denied involvement in the suspected tanker attacks.
“It’s a dangerous situation. The high-tension wires are up in the region. We have to be strong and strategic about how we protect our interests. We also cannot be reckless in what we do,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a top Democrat, told reporters at her regular weekly press conference on Thursday morning.
“I don’t think the president wants to go to war. There is no appetite for going to war in our country,” Pelosi said.
A briefing for House members was scheduled for Thursday afternoon featuring former Ambassador Wendy Sherman, who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in the Obama administration, former CIA Director John Brennan and William Burr, a nuclear analyst at the National Security Archive, Pelosi said.
Democrats have been unhappy that Trump has not mounted an effective diplomatic strategy with Iran since the president pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal last year and began what a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, including reimposing sanctions.
“Maximum pressure is for a result. The result is to have a diplomatic breakthrough where you bring Iran back to the negotiating table,” Democratic Senator Bob Menendez told Al Jazeera.
“From everything I sense about the administration, maximum pressure is just about building a pressure cooker that ultimately without an escape valve explodes,” Menendez said. “We need to see the administration on an all-out effort for a maximum effort for diplomacy to get Iran back to the table. That is not something I have seen.”
Democrats warned that Trump does not have authority to attack Iran while some Republicans said the president would be within his authority.
“We are a co-equal branch of government and any response really needs to be ratified by the Congress,” Representative Eliot Engel, the Democrat chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters. “I would hope that the administration would chose not to go down this path alone and work with the Congress and also work with our allies.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican and Trump ally, said that the US is “being tested”.
“They know that they will lose. They just don’t believe that we have the will to fight back. The day they believe that and they see that, this calms down,” Graham told reporters.
Meanwhile, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters he believes Trump administration has engaged in measured responses to Iran.