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Sen. Coons on Iran strike: “Can we keep our diplomats and our armed forces safe…and do we have a strategy?”

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined Fox News’ Martha MacCallum last night to discuss Iran’s strike on the Al Asad and Irbil air bases in Iraq.  

“My key concern here is both can we keep our diplomats and our armed forces safe in the region, and do we have a strategy? Can President Trump deliver to us in Congress a strategy that we can support that will de-escalate this particular situation yet push back on Iran’s malign activity in the region,” said Senator Coons.

Video and audio available here 

Excerpts from the interview:

What is your reaction to what you’re seeing play out tonight?

First, my reaction is that I hope and pray that there haven’t been American casualties on that base in Iraq this evening, that we haven’t lost any American lives or the lives of our partners and allies in the region. As all of us wait for what the response will be, I am looking forward to getting a briefing from very senior administration officials tomorrow. All of us in the Senate will get a classified briefing tomorrow afternoon. Just an hour ago, I came from a classified briefing from the Homeland Security Department about the possibility of Iran using cyberattacks against the United States. It is important that we not only be prepared, both at our bases and facilities overseas where our armed forces and our diplomats are housed, but also here in the United States. And I think the most important part about being prepared is for the President to deliver a clear strategy to those of us in Congress who would ultimately be responsible for debating whether we think we should be de-escalating this conflict with Iran or escalating further.  

Do you have any information about what kind of protections these bases have in terms of anti-missile defense?

Specifically this base, no. Broadly there are assets in the region that allow us to have anti-missile capability, but there are as you know thousands and thousands of U.S. armed forces and diplomats scattered throughout the region in dozens of facilities. I don’t believe that we’ve got anti-missile batteries for all of them and I think there are some real challenges here in terms of being able to defend all of our troops and facilities given Iran’s relatively sophisticated ballistic missile capabilities. 

What concerns do you have about the potential for other attacks?

My concern frankly is that Iran may well take this one action tonight and then lay low for months, and then surprise us in another theater around the world or here at home. We’re going to have to have a clear strategy for how to engage our allies, how to put pressure on Iran, and how to deter future attacks, and that’s what I think is most important, is for the administration and Congress working together to come up with a stronger and clearer strategy for the region. It might have made news to strike Soleimani, certainly I don’t mourn his passing. He was a person responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American servicemen over the years. But this was a dramatically escalatory step and now I think we need to make sure there is a coherent strategy for how we’re going to move forward.

How much of your thinking on that hinges on what you learn about the intelligence? What would you have recommended the action be?

Well that’s what I look forward to hearing in the classified briefing tomorrow, is exactly what qualified as an imminent threat, but more broadly over many, many months there have been steady, increasing escalatory steps by Iran against our regional partners and allies and some responses by the United States, so frankly I think there should have been a strategy in place. I know the President was given, according to press reports, a range of options for what to do in response to the Shiite militia attack on an American facility that killed an American contractor and several others… 

What do you think would have been an appropriate response?

The President had a range of options at his disposal and I know some of them would have included either a cyberattack or a lower-level military attack on Iranian capacities or assets. I’m just struck by the fact that the killing of Soleimani was a very significant escalation and I hope that there has been a thorough plan put together about what the next steps will be because a strong, forceful Iranian response throughout the region was, I think, entirely predictable.

Given the escalation that Iran had been producing over the last 18 months, do you think targeting Soleimani was fair game?

Let’s be clear, none of us should mourn the death of Qassem Soleimani. He is someone who is a designated individual terrorist, a very significant senior leader in Iran’s malign attempts throughout the region. In terms of the legitimacy of seeing him as someone who is an enemy of the United States and our interests, I agree strongly. What I am concerned about and look forward to asking senior administration officials about tomorrow is the planning and the consultation. The idea of potentially striking Soleimani has been put in front of American military leaders and decision-makers over a decade. Previous presidents, previous decision-makers have chosen not to. There were some reasons this might have been the right moment, but there is an obvious set of questions: Did we consult with our allies in the region who were joining with us in the fight against ISIS? Should we have given any notice to Iraq given that the other individual killed alongside him, also a leader of a Shiite militia that’s strongly influenced by Iran, but was himself a member of the Iraqi parliament, were there things we could have done…

Would the moment have been lost if there had been too much consultation?

That’s one of the things that has to be weighed by both military commanders in their advice to the President and the President. But this was not a unique opportunity to strike Soleimani, he’s someone who travels fairly publicly, fairly routinely.           

But he was traveling with a small group of people, which makes it a different opportunity.

That’s correct, and that’s probably why he was presented to the President as one of the options. My key concern here is both can we keep our diplomats and our armed forces safe in the region, and do we have a strategy? Can President Trump deliver to us in Congress a strategy that we can support that will de-escalate this particular situation yet push back on Iran’s malign activity in the region?

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