WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump said on Thursday that "nothing is off the table" in dealing with Iran following its test launch of a ballistic missile, and his fellow Republicans in Congress said they would back him up with new sanctions.
Trump comment was in response to a question about whether he would consider military options to respond to Tehran, a day after his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, put Iran "on notice."
It was not clear what Trump meant. Every recent U.S. president, including Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, has said that U.S. military options were not off the table to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the United States should stop "appeasing" Tehran.
"I would be in favor of additional sanctions on Iran," Ryan told reporters at a weekly news conference. "I'd like to put as much toothpaste back in the tube as possible. I think the last administration appeased Iran far too much."
Like every Republican in Congress, Ryan opposed the nuclear agreement with Iran that went into effect early last year. But Republican lawmakers said they were working with the Trump administration to push back on Iran as much as possible without risking the international uncertainty that would come with tearing up the pact.
"Now we have a partner that's willing to deal with Iran in the way that Iran should be dealt with. ... And so we're in a real different ballgame," Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Reuters.
Corker said his committee was "in the early stages" of working on legislation related to the nuclear issue.
ACTIONS WITHOUT CONGRESS
Trump's administration has already begun looking at actions it could take without waiting for Congress, where Republicans would have to win some Democratic support to pass any new sanctions package, congressional aides said.
For example, Trump could impose sanctions already authorized by existing laws, but which were not put into effect by the Obama administration. The Democrat's White House opposed any action - including imposing sanctions passed by Congress - that could have undermined the nuclear agreement.
Corker said he had discussed Iran at the White House with Flynn on Wednesday, just before Trump's national security adviser issued a warning that Washington was putting Iran on notice for its "destabilizing activity."
A top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his country would not yield to "useless" U.S. threats from "an inexperienced person" over its ballistic missile program. The adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati did identify a specific U.S. official in his comments.
Corker said the Trump administration would take a stronger stance against Iran, although he did not expect its actions would bring an end to the international nuclear deal.
"No. I think the intention is that they fully comply," he told Reuters.
Corker said his intention would be to "radically enforce" the nuclear agreement, working with U.S. allies and the United Nations Security Council to hold Iran's feet to the fire.
But he also envisioned "follow-on" action, for example, to curtail Iran's nuclear program in the long term, setting stiff limits on the extent to which it could ever enrich uranium and barring it from installing upgraded centrifuges after the end of the 15-year-long pact.
A section of U.N. Resolution 2231 calls on Iran "not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology."
Iran said it had tested a new ballistic missile but said it did not breach the nuclear deal or the Security Council resolution.
Highlighting the Trump administration's more aggressive tone against Iran, Trump sent messages on Twitter on Wednesday and Thursday targeting the Islamic Republic and criticizing the nuclear pact.
Another senior Republican foreign policy voice, Sen. Lindsey Graham, told CNN he thought Trump should go to Congress to request additional sanctions for a range of activities in the Middle East, including the ballistic missile test on Sunday, which he said were not in U.S. interests.
"The world should not only condemn Iran but we should have multinational sanctions against the regime for their continued violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding their missile program," Graham said on CNN.