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Wed 22 May 2019 08:28 AM

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US fingers Iran on Gulf attacks but eases tone

Top Trump officials appeared to be toning down weeks of fiery warnings to Iran before delivering a classified briefing to the full Congress

US fingers Iran on Gulf attacks but eases tone

President Donald Trump's administration charged Tuesday it was "quite possible" Iran was responsible for the sabotage of Gulf oil interests but said its own robust response had prevented potential attacks on Americans.

Top Trump officials appeared to be toning down weeks of fiery warnings to Iran before delivering a classified briefing to the full Congress, where opposition Democrats have accused the administration of hyping intelligence and pushing the United States dangerously close to war.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States has not made "a definitive conclusion" that can be presented publicly over the sabotage of oil tankers off the United Arab Emirates or drone strikes on a crude pipeline in Saudi Arabia.

"But given all the regional conflicts that we have seen over the past decade and the shape of these attacks, it seems like it's quite possible that Iran was behind these," Pompeo told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt before heading to Capitol Hill.

Yemen's Houthi rebels, who are allied with Iran and are being hit hard by US-backed Saudi air strikes, claimed responsibility last week for a drone strike on a major east-west pipeline in the kingdom, which was forced to shut down temporarily.

John Bolton, Trump's hawkish national security advisor, earlier this month warned of "unrelenting force" if Iran strikes US interests as he announced the deployment to the region of an aircraft carrier strike group, followed by nuclear-capable B-52 bombers.

Threats 'put on hold'

Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who was joined at the briefing by the US military chief, General Joseph Dunford, said the US response had made an impact.

"I think our steps were very prudent and we've put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans," Shanahan told reporters.

"I'd say we're in a period where the threat remains high and our job is to make sure that there is no miscalculation by the Iranians," he said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that the United States was "playing a very, very dangerous game" with military deployments, saying that some actors were "interested in accidents" - a likely allusion to its regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia.

"There will be painful consequences for everybody [if] there is an escalation against Iran, that's for sure," he said," Zarif told CNN.

Trump last year pulled out of a multinational agreement negotiated under his predecessor Barack Obama under which Tehran drastically scaled back its nuclear work in return for promises of sanctions relief.

The administration, which is closely allied with Riyadh, instead vowed "maximum pressure" to weaken Iran's regional influence, including by trying to stop all oil sales by Tehran.

Democrats said they were determined to hold the administration to account after the debacle over intelligence before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Representative Adam Smith said that Pompeo in the briefing gave "a very lengthy political argument" explaining "all the terrible things Iran has done" until the Democratic lawmaker said he cut him off and asked to hear about US policy.

"I think there's a risk of miscalculation on both sides. And that remains my biggest concern," Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters.

Representative Eliot Engel, who runs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he feared the administration was "walking towards war."

"I think we should have learned our lesson. War is the last thing you do, not the first thing you put on the table," he told reporters.

But Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on Engel's committee, said Pompeo made a convincing case that Iran and proxies were behind numerous attacks - including a rocket that landed Sunday near the evacuated US embassy in Baghdad.

Also taking a moderate tone, he described the administration's effort as "a deterrent operation to stop Iran's escalation and aggression in the region."

"It was made very clear... there is no intention to go to war," McCaul said.

Opening on prisoners?

Trump stoked the fire on Sunday in a tweet in which he warned: "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran."

But the US president - who made similar threats against North Korea before meeting leader Kim Jong Un - downplayed the Iranian threat to US interests a day later and has called for talks.

Few expect Iran's leaders to meet Trump - anti-Americanism is a cardinal tenet of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But Zarif has proposed a swap of prisoners, a step some observers say could offer a path to resume at least low-level dialogue to ease tensions.

Pompeo said in the radio interview, without further explanation, that there had been "just a hint" that Iran was moving to release imprisoned US citizens.

"Even a small confidence-building measure is a good thing, so it's absolutely the case that were they to release these Americans who are wrongfully held, it would be a good thing," Pompeo said.