Confrontation in Congress looms over Iran conflict

– A White House briefing angers many in Congress, including at least two Republicans.

A classified briefing on the Iran crisis from Trump administration officials on Wednesday did little to convince Democrats that the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was justified, and some Republicans were unhappy about the White House’s failure to include lawmakers in the decision-making process.

Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, emerged from the meeting visibly angry, complaining of hollow assurances that lawmakers would be consulted.

“Drive-by notification or after-the-fact, lame briefings like the one we just received aren’t adequate,” he said.

Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, appeared equally dissatisfied. “I didn’t learn anything in the hearing that I hadn’t seen in newspapers already,” he said.

Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, called the briefing “sophomoric and utterly unconvincing,” and Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, said that the “facts provided did not support the administration’s claim that there was an imminent attack in the United States.”

Still, Mr. Lee and Mr. Paul were in the minority among Republicans, most of whom came out of the hearing with praise for the administration.

“It was very well done,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. “I think they’ve done an excellent job of outlining the rationale behind both the decision to go after Suleimani and of the response to the Iranian attack yesterday.”

And Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, said that the information was “crystal clear” and that the administration had made the right call in deciding to “take out Suleimani.”

The briefing was attended by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, but that heavy-duty lineup did not impress many Democrats.

Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, said the briefing reminded him of presentations from the George W. Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war.

It was “the same kind of lies I was hearing 20 years ago when I was a member of the House,” he told MSNBC.

Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, said on Twitter that he “did not hear evidence of a specific imminent threat that would allow an attack without congressional authorization.”

“With consequences as serious as these, that is unacceptable,” he added. “Congress needs to act.”

Late Wednesday, Mr. Van Hollen tweeted the unclassified version of the intelligence sent to Congress after the Suleimani killing, saying, “From all we’ve seen, including the redacted parts here and the briefing, the facts do not show an imminent threat.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi before a closed briefing on Iran on Wednesday.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi before a closed briefing on Iran on Wednesday.Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

The next battle may be over presidential war powers.

House members plan to vote on Thursday to force President Trump to quickly wind down military action against Iran unless he is given explicit authorization from Congress, said Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Ms. Pelosi made the announcement as lawmakers breathed a sigh of relief on Capitol Hill after Mr. Trump announced he would back away from any military escalation against Tehran.

But congressional Democrats, skeptical of the administration’s case for the drone strike last week that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, said they would press ahead with efforts to rein in the president’s war-making authority.

They said they would move forward with a measure that would require that Mr. Trump cease all military action against Iran within 30 days unless Congress votes to approve it.

The measure stands little chance in the Republican-controlled Senate, but it is certain to ignite a fierce debate over Mr. Trump’s strategy on Iran, and Congress’s role in curtailing a president’s ability to wage war.

Where Republicans have generally praised Mr. Trump for his show of restraint — and for his choice of target in General Suleimani — Democrats “have serious, urgent concerns about the administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran and about its lack of strategy moving forward,” Ms. Pelosi said.

President Trump announced new economic sanctions against Tehran but did not call for more military action against the Iranians during his first formal public remarks about the conflict since ordering the drone strike of Iran’s most important general last week.

“The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,” Mr. Trump said.

Flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and other military officials, the president did little to explain his reasoning for ordering the killing of General Suleimani.

“He should have been terminated long ago,” Mr. Trump said.

Early Wednesday, the Iranians retaliated by launching more than 20 ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq where Americans are posted. Mr. Trump said no Americans were killed.

The administration has cited vague intelligence threats against American interests to explain the decision to kill the Iranian general. But many have found its strategy and goals for Iran was conflicting and confusing. Mr. Trump was forced to walk back threats to target Iranian cultural sites after Mr. Esper made clear that such actions would be a war crime.

“As we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression, the United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday.

The United States already has crippling sanctions in place against Iran. In June, Mr. Trump announced a new round in response to Tehran’s actions against tankers in international waters. And in the spring of 2019, the United States cut off revenues from Iranian oil experts, hitting directly at the heart of the country’s economy.

Celebrating in Tehran with pictures of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani after Iran launched missiles at American forces in Iraq.

Celebrating in Tehran with pictures of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani after Iran launched missiles at American forces in Iraq.Credit…Wana News Agency, via Reuters

There were signs Wednesday that the United States and Iran have stepped back from the edge of a war.

The Iranian foreign minister said that his country had “concluded” its attacks on American forces and that it did “not seek escalation or war.” Iran fired more than 20 ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq where United States troops are stationed.

The foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, posted the remarks on Twitter after Iran conducted the strikes in response to the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Senior Iraqi defense officials who work with the United States command said that no Americans or Iraqis had been killed in the attacks. In a short statement released on Wednesday morning, the Joint Command in Baghdad, which includes both Iraqi troops and soldiers from the international coalition, said that neither force “recorded any losses.”

Without American deaths from Iran’s missiles, Mr. Trump may not have felt the same pressure to punch back that he would have confronted with high troop casualties.

General Suleimani was killed on Friday in Baghdad in a drone strike ordered by President Trump. American officials said the general, who led the foreign expeditionary Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, had been planning imminent attacks on American interests. One American official has since described that intelligence as thin.

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” Foreign Minister Zarif said in his Twitter message, adding, “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

Although Mr. Zarif, said his country had concluded its attack, officials around the region cautioned that the statement did not mean Tehran was done maneuvering, and Iran’s leadership has reiterated its goal of forcing United States troops out of the Middle East.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said Wednesday that General Suleimani had “fought heroically” against jihadist groups and that Europe was safer because of his efforts.

“Our final answer to his assassination will be to kick all US forces out of the region,” he wrote.

A protest in Baghdad on Wednesday against the Iranian missile strikes.

A protest in Baghdad on Wednesday against the Iranian missile strikes.Credit…Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press

An influential Iraqi Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, said on Wednesday that the crisis Iraq was experiencing had ended and called on militia groups not to carry out attacks, Reuters reported.

Mr. al-Sadr said Iraq should still seek to expel foreign troops, but appeared to be laying his hopes in a new Iraqi government. One capable of protecting the nation’s sovereignty and independence should be formed in the next 15 days, he said.

“I call on the Iraqi factions to be deliberate, patient, and not to start military actions, and to shut down the extremist voices of some rogue elements until all political, parliamentary and international methods have been exhausted,” he said.

Mr. al-Sadr’s remarks came after Iranian and American officials made statements attempting to de-escalate the conflict.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq also released a statement on Wednesday saying his government would “continue its intense attempts to prevent escalation” in the simmering conflict.

After Iranian missiles struck bases housing American troops in Iraq on Wednesday, Mr. Abdul Mahdi objected to the violation of his country’s sovereignty. His comments echoed remarks he made after an American drone strike killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani on Friday, and after the United States struck an Iranian-backed militia in western Iraq in late December.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, at a policy meeting on Tuesday.Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a close ally of the president, declared Mr. Trump’s speech on Iran “excellent.” He said Mr. Trump had briefed him the night before.

“I said to the Iranian leadership and people: He’s giving you a pathway to peace — I hope you’ll take it,” Mr. Graham told reporters on Wednesday.

Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, acknowledged that Mr. Trump seemed to pulling American forces off the “path to conventional war.” But pointing to the new set of sanctions the president announced against Iran, he said, “It also doesn’t seem as if we are truly de-escalating.”

“Remember, Iran started their provocations in response to our unilateral set of sanctions,” Mr. Murphy said. “Time will tell, but I’m not sure that this is going to be effective in de-escalating the crisis.”

European leaders repeated their commitment to the nuclear deal.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, in Brussels on Wednesday.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, in Brussels on Wednesday.Credit…Stephanie Lecocq/EPA, via Shutterstock

Addressing the U.S. conflict with Iran on Wednesday, Mr. Trump called on Europeans to abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as he did in May 2018. His wish is likely to go unheeded.

Just a few hours before the president spoke, top European leaders repeated their commitment to the deal and urged Iran to return to compliance, even in the face of harsh American sanctions.

After the killing of General Suleimani, Iran announced that it no longer would be limited by the deal, but it did not say what it would do, leaving room for both escalation and a return to compliance.

The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, and the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, both said the nuclear agreement should be preserved. To that end, Ms. von der Leyen, said Mr. Borrell has been reaching out to all signatories to the deal, including Russia and China.

Iran has, in effect, been making a phased retreat from its obligations under the deal since Mr. Trump abandoned it and reimposed economic sanctions on Iran.

Britain, France and Germany, together with the European Union, Russia, China and the United States negotiated the deal, but only Washington has pulled out of it. Iran has regularly complained that the Europeans are not doing enough to provide Iran the economic benefits it was promised in the deal.

Any country giving Iran financial assistance could run afoul of the sanctions and risk incurring sanctions itself. But both Russia and China have found ways to buy at least some Iranian oil. And some European countries have proposed workarounds to help Iran while complying with U.S. policy.

The Europeans say that the nuclear deal is in their national interests and have pressed Iran to come back into compliance.

The deal, Mr. Borrell said Wednesday, is “today more important than ever, because this is the only place where we can sit together with the Russians and Chinese to talk on a multilateral basis about the many risks that we are facing. It’s one of the most important tools of nonproliferation and regional security.”

Investors signaled their relief after President Trump backed away from further confrontation with Iran. Stocks in the United States climbed to new highs shortly after the conclusion of the president’s speech, in which he said the strikes produced no American casualties and that Iran now “appears to be standing down.”

Oil prices, which had spiked after the missile attacks and fallen hours later, fell further after the televised address. Brent crude, the international benchmark, was down more than 3.5 percent and 4 percent shortly after midday.

At the same time, the S & P 500 was up more roughly 0.7 percent to nearly 3,260. If the market holds that level until the end of the trading day, it would be a record, overtaking the previous high-water mark set on Jan. 2.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressing a meeting in Tehran on Wednesday.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressing a meeting in Tehran on Wednesday.Credit…Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, said on Wednesday that his military had dealt the United States a “slap in the face” when it unleashed missiles at American forces stationed in Iraq.

In a televised address from the holy city of Qom, Ayatollah Khamenei said incremental military actions against the United States alone were “not sufficient.”

“What matters is that the presence of America, which is a source of corruption in this region, should come to an end,” he said to a hall filled with imams and others.

“Death to America!,” the crowd chanted. “Death to Israel!”

Ayatollah Khamenei said that “sitting at the negotiating table” with American envoys would open the door to greater American intervention in the region and that such negotiations therefore must “come to an end.”

“This region,” he said, “does not accept the U.S. presence.”

Construction at the Bushehr nuclear plant in November.

Construction at the Bushehr nuclear plant in November.Credit…Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

A 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck southern Iran just before dawn on Wednesday, the United States Geological Survey reported, in the same region as the troubled Bushehr nuclear power plant.

No casualties were immediately reported, though rescue teams were working at the site, the state-run IRNA news agency said.

The quake was reported about 30 miles from the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant, long seen as a safety concern by Western countries. It has been plagued by construction delays and technical problems, and is on an active fault line.

Two more reactors are planned for the same site. Construction on the first of those began in November.

The quake struck just hours after Iran launched missiles at United States forces based in Iraq and an airliner carrying more than 170 people crashed after takeoff from Tehran, killing everyone on board.

Bodies lying near the site of the Ukrainian Boeing crash on the outskirts of Tehran.

Bodies lying near the site of the Ukrainian Boeing crash on the outskirts of Tehran.Credit…Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

A Ukrainian Boeing 737-800 carrying at least 170 people crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing everyone aboard, according to the Iranian state news media.

The circumstances of the crash were unclear. The Iranian outlets cited technical problems with the plane, which was bound for Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. The crash came at a tense time in Iran, as conflict with the United States had the country on edge.

Photographs posted by Iranian news organizations showed rescuers examining smoking rubble in a field. The state-run Iranian Students’ News Agency shared a video it said showed the predawn crash, with a distant light descending in the distance before a bright burst filled the sky upon impact.

The plane, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, departed Imam Khomeini International Airport at 6:12 a.m. on Wednesday and lost contact at 6:14 a.m., according to a flight tracker.

Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said the victims included 82 Iranians and 11 Ukrainians, including nine Ukrainian crew members. Sixty-three passengers were from Canada, 10 from Sweden, four from Afghanistan, three from Britain and three from Germany, he said.

A number of international airlines announced that flights would be avoiding the airspace over Iran and Iraq after reports of strikes on bases housing American troops in Iraq. The moves also came after the apparently unrelated news of the crash of a Ukrainian passenger plane in the early hours of Wednesday near Tehran. Other airlines have canceled flights to the region.

On Tuesday, the F.A.A. barred American airliners from flying over Iran, citing the risk of commercial planes being mistaken for military aircraft.

The Dutch airline KLM said on Wednesday that it was no longer flying in Iraqi or Iranian airspace “until further notice,” citing security risks. Air France and the Australian carrier Qantas took similar measures, news agencies reported.

The German carrier Lufthansa also announced the temporary cancellation of a daily flight between Frankfurt and Tehran because of the security situation, according to Reuters, but later said it would restart that route on Thursday.

Reporting was contributed by Alissa J. Rubin, Peter Baker, Michael D. Shear, Eileen Sullivan, Falih Hassan, Megan Specia, Ben Hubbard, Steven Erlanger, Russell Goldman, Farnaz Fassihi, Daniel Victor, Anton Troianovski, Andrew Kramer, Eric Schmitt, Vivian Yee, Catie Edmondson and Steve Kenny.