- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2019

President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria won’t undercut the administration’s maximum-pressure campaign on Iran, the State Department’s point man on the clash with Tehran told a Senate panel Wednesday.

Iran has been a key military supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces have moved into Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria just days after the U.S. special operations forces withdrew.

“The president’s decision with respect to Syria is not going to change our Iran strategy or the efficacy of it,” Brian Hook, the special representative to Iran, insisted in the face of frequently skeptical questioning.

Mr. Hook’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, came just as Mr. Trump dismissed Turkey’s latest moves in the ongoing military offensive in the region and told reporters that “if Turkey goes into Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria.”

“It’s not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like … you to believe,” he continued.

Mr. Trump’s decision sparked bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill, and senators warned Wednesday that Tehran was well-positioned to exploit the departure of the Americans.

“I presume Iran was smiling ear to ear as Turkey rushed into Syria,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican.

“We do not believe that this changes the dynamic with Iran,” Mr. Hook insisted.

The State Department official, who has led the push to impose harsh sanctions on Iran and its trading partners following Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last year, said newly declassified information revealed Iran has been transferring weapons to organizations the U.S. considers terrorist groups in the year and a half since Mr. Trump renounced the nuclear accord.

“Iran expanded its ballistic missile activities to partners across the region, including Hezbollah, Palestinian terrorist groups and Shia militias in Iraq,” he said. “Iran is continuing to develop missile systems and technologies solely for export to regional proxies.”

But lawmakers said the Syrian crisis represented a real opportunity for Tehran, which has strongly backed Syrian President Bashar Assad and it widely suspected of hoping to use Syria as part of a “land bridge” linking Iran to fellow Shiite communities across the region.

“This is the most screwed up decision I’ve seen since I’ve been in congress,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. Iran is massing at the borders as we speak. If we withdraw all of our forces and abandon the oil fields, Iran will surely go in and seize the oil fields, it will undercut the maximum pressure campaign, and our friends in Israel will be in a world of hurt.”

U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters have criticized the withdrawal as being a “stab in the back” and a “betrayal” after the group had led the ground fight to defeat the Islamic State’s Syria-based “caliphate.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat said in an interview following the hearing that the president’s abrupt Syria withdrawal is “one of the biggest national security blunders I’ve seen ever made.”

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said the hearing “just goes to prove … that we have totally weakened our position as it relates to Iran and Syria.”

Mr. Menendez slammed the answers provided by Mr. Hook in the often heated hearing. The senator said afterward he was still not satisfied with the administration’s answers.

“Mr. Hook is very good at creating diversions,” Mr. Menendez said.

Although Iran has been a focus of Mr. Trump’s Middle East policy, Wednesday’s hearing marked the first public testimony on Iran from an administration official before the Senate panel since March 2017.

A House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department’s lead envoy on the Syrian crisis, that was scheduled for Thursday was postponed as the Senate Armed Services Committee is set to receive a classified briefing on the latest events Thursday afternoon.

Separately, the Reuters news agency reported Wednesday that the U.S. waged a secret “cyber operation” against Iran after finding the country was responsible for attacking Saudi Arabian oil facilities last month. Citing two U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity, Reuters said the operation was conducted late last month and targeted Tehran’s ability to spread “propaganda.”

A top Iranian official said the cyber strike was unsuccessful, and the Pentagon declined to comment.

“They must have dreamt it,” Iran’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, told the Fars news agency reported.

⦁ Staff writer Andrew Blake contributed to this report.

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