U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing about U.S. policy on Iran, October 16, 2019. (Screen grab of Senate foreign relations committee live stream)
U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing about U.S. policy on Iran, Oct. 16, 2019. (Screen grab of Senate foreign relations committee live stream)

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump's Iran policy came under strong criticism at a Senate hearing in which Democrats and some Republicans accused him of emboldening Iran by pulling U.S. troops out of Syria.

Trump's Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, the sole witness at Wednesday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, rebuffed the criticism of the president's decision earlier this month to begin a U.S. troop pullout from northern Syria shortly before Turkey launched a long-threatened offensive against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces in the region. Since then, Syrian Kurdish forces have appealed for and received help from troops under the command of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia, both allies of Iran.

"The president's decision with respect to Syria is not going to change our Iran strategy or the efficacy of it," Hook said, referring to the U.S. strategy of imposing maximum pressure on Iran to stop perceived malign behaviors, including support for Shiite militias in Syria who have defended Assad from a years-long rebellion.

Hook said the administration's regular tightening of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran over the past year has raised the cost of Iranian involvement in the Syrian conflict. "Iran doesn't have the money that it used to, [in order] to support Assad and its proxies," Hook said. "So Iran is going to face a dilemma. They can either support guns in Syria or prioritize the needs of their own people at home."

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, left, and ranking member Senator Bob Corker are seen holding a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

"Withdrawing troops in northern Syria and green-lighting Turkey's brutal incursion gives new life to [Islamic State militants] and hands over the keys of our national security to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, Iran and Assad," countered U.S. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democratic member of the committee. "All the sanctions in the world aren't going to fix that."

Small contingents of U.S. forces had been training and fighting alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria in recent years, helping them to destroy the Islamic State's caliphate in Syria and keep it from regrouping.

Hook also faced tough questioning from several Republican committee members who have been critical of Trump's decision to withdraw the troops and leave the SDF to face Turkey's offensive on its own.

FILE - Sen. Lindsey Graham, speaks to reporters after a briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 21, 2019.

"This is the most screwed-up decision I've seen since I've been in Congress," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "If we withdraw all of our forces [from Syria] 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," he added.

Northeastern Syria is home to that nation's largest oil fields. There have been no reports of Iran deploying its own troops to that region.

FILE - Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, arrives for a vote on Capitol Hill, May 17, 2018, in Washington.

U.S. Republican Senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida also told Hook that they saw the U.S. troop pullout from Syria as emboldening Iran. But committee Chairman Jim Risch of Idaho did not raise the troop pullout issue, instead saying that he saw the U.S. maximum pressure campaign as working by reducing the funding that Iran has been able to provide to its proxies throughout the Middle East.

This article originated in VOA's Persian service.