U.S. vs. Iran: Military Action ‘On the Table,’ Trump Administration Says After Senate Vote Threatens Saudi Arabia Support

The United States has warned that conducting military action against Iran is a viable option in dealing with the revolutionary Shiite Muslim power, just one day after senators voted in favor of a measure that would withdraw support for Saudi Arabia.

State Department special representative on Iran Brian Hook hosted a press conference Thursday at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling in Washington, D.C., where an array of allegedly Iranian weapons and military paraphernalia were on display. Hook argued that Tehran has provided such equipment, which included ballistic missiles, to nonstate actors in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

When asked what next steps could be taken as the White House's hard-line sanctions campaign against Iran failed to force Tehran into compliance, Hook cited a previous statement by President Donald Trump, who promised "swift and decisive action" in the wake of rocket attacks blamed on Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias against U.S. diplomatic buildings in Iraq. Hook elaborated on what this meant.

"We have been very clear with the Iranian regime that we will not hesitate to use military force when our interests are threatened. I think they understand that. I think they understand that very clearly," Hook said. "I think right now, while we have the military option on the table, our preference is to use all of the tools that are at our disposal diplomatically."

GettyImages-1066355832 The U.S. military displays what it claims are Iranian weapons at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling in Washington, D.C., on November 29. The U.S. and Iran have accused one another of fueling instability in the Middle East through support for nonstate actors. THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images

Hook's presentation echoed one held last year by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at the same venue. Her conference came shortly after the Zaidi Shiite Muslim group known as Ansar Allah or the Houthis fired a Burkan H2 short-range ballistic missile from Yemen toward Saudi Arabia's King Khaled International Airport last November. Saudi Arabia reportedly intercepted the missile, though the official account has been questioned, as have Iran's alleged role in supplying such weapons and ongoing U.S. support for Riyadh's war in the neighboring war-torn country.

The Houthis ousted former Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in 2015, prompting Saudi Arabia to form a U.S.-backed Arab coalition to begin bombing the rebels, which they accused of being an Iranian proxy group. Riyadh and Tehran have long competed for regional supremacy and legitimacy, with Washington firmly backing the former and providing extensive military assistance to its top weapons export partner, even as reports of civilian casualties mounted.

The conflict has been largely locked in a stalemate, though recent events have shaken U.S. resolve for supporting Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally in the region. Last month, Riyadh's agents killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a government critic who fled the kingdom only to be slain in his home country's consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi government has admitted to the operation, but it claimed it was not ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—the country's de facto ruler—though mounting evidence has suggested otherwise.

Still, the Trump administration has stood by the royal, with the president's response largely pivoting the conversation toward Iran and its alleged support for Shiite Muslim militias and acts of terrorism worldwide. Trump admitted last week, "It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of” Khashoggi's slaying, but maintained that military agreements, oil ties and their shared stance against Iran were more important to the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that there was "no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to order the murder of Jamal Khashoggi."

Both officials denied that a classified CIA investigation into the incident had indicted the crown prince, challenging media reports citing sources with knowledge of the matter. However, lawmakers protested and, despite appeals from Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis, senators voted 63-37 to move forward a resolution to ​withdraw U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Reports indicate that at least five of the Republican senators who voted against this measure had received funds from the Saudi lobby in Washington.

IranKhameneiNavyMeeting Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses a group of commanders and officials of Iran’s naval forces on the National Day of Navy, in Iran, on November 28. Leader.ir

Echoing other administration officials' defense of Saudi Arabia, Hook told reporters Thursday that "abandoning Yemen right now would do immense damage to U.S. national security interests and to those of our partners in the Middle East."

The U.S. has argued that the 2015 nuclear deal forged between former President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani emboldened Tehran to increase backing for movements it supports across the region, where frictions between the U.S. and Iran have intensified. In Iraq, Iran has supported Shiite Muslim militias battling the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) alongside the U.S.-backed Iraqi military. In Syria, Iran-backed militias have also fought the jihadis as well as rebel groups on behalf of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while a U.S.-led coalition has bombed ISIS and called for the removal of Assad's government.

Since the White House abandoned the nuclear agreement in May—despite pleas from fellow signatories China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom—Iran adopted a more hostile stance toward the U.S. As new sanctions further choked a struggling Iranian economy and Washington's rhetoric grew increasingly militant, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on his country's armed forces Wednesday to prepare for a potential conflict.

"The Islamic Republic does not intend to start a war with anyone," Khamenei said during a meeting with top naval officials. "However, you need to strengthen your abilities so much so that not only the enemy will fear attacking Iran, but, as a result of unity, might and effective presence of the armed forces in the field—the shadow of intimidation and threats will also go away from the Iranian nation."

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