WASHINGTON, DC – For all of the Trump administration’s insistence that the threat of an “imminent” attack led to the American drone strike on Iran’s top general, U.S. officials behind the scenes say the strike was motivated as much, if not more, by a broader effort to rein in a dangerously emboldened Iran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr gave voice to the broader rationale on Monday, saying deterrence was a key component of the strike. But they, like other U.S. officials interviewed by The Associated Press, stopped short of saying definitively that no specific plot was broken up.
Still, the shifting rationale has raised questions about the nature and credibility of the threat posed by Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the architect of a decades-long reign of terror in which Iranian proxy fighters killed hundreds of Americans and contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the region. Critics of President Donald Trump's decision say he should have consulted Congress before taking an action that brought the United State and Iran to the brink of war.
Nine Senate Democrats on Tuesday demanded a new classified briefing from the nation's top intelligence official seeking specific evidence underlying Trump statements that Iran was planning imminent attacks on four U.S. embassies.
That justification, which first surfaced Friday, was not provided to lawmakers during classified briefings last week. It was disputed days later by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who said he’d seen no such evidence — though the president maintained Monday that there was no contradiction in their comments.
"It is vital for the American public to know if intelligence is being manipulated or inaccurately represented by their government to justify an assassination of a foreign official," the nine Democrats wrote in a letter to Joseph Maguire, the director of national intelligence.
“I think the administration has to come back and fill in the details” said Sen. Chris Murphy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Middle East and Counter-terrorism panel. "My guess is that the details don't exist."
In recent days a clearer picture of the decision-making process leading up to the strike has emerged. While U.S. officials stopped short of saying definitively that there was no specific plot disrupted by Soleimani’s death, they have acknowledged in recent days that the long-considered operation had a more fundamental purpose: breaking up what they viewed to be a perilous cycle of violence that could have brought the United States and Iran even closer to hostilities.
Soleimani was undoubtedly planning other potentially deadly operations against American interests as he had for decades, the officials said. But a driving concern was that the Trump administration feared a loss of “deterrence” with Iran, according to three senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations surrounding the strike and its aftermath.
Two of Trump’s most prominent Cabinet officials echoed that message on Monday.
“Our ability to deter attacks had obviously broken down,” Barr said . Pompeo said, “President Trump and those of us in his national security team are re-establishing deterrence – real deterrence ‒ against the Islamic Republic."
Trump himself implicitly acknowledged the deterrence aim, telling reporters Monday that the strike against Soleimani “should have been done 20 years ago.” And he implied as much in a tweet that day: “The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was “imminent” or not, & was my team in agreement,” he tweeted. “The answer to both is a strong YES., but it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”
Concerns about increasingly brazen attacks by Iran and its proxies, including the downing of an American drone and strikes on Saudi Arabian oil field last year, have mounted within the U.S. national security community for months, the officials said. Trump had decided against military retaliation to those attacks, which damaged equipment but did not result in loss of life, but U.S. officials worried that Iran might confuse its restraint with weakness.
Soleimani, the officials said, had been identified as the target for potential U.S. lethal action months ago, at least since the aftermath of Trump's September decision to call off what was seen to be an imminent strike on Iran. Military planners and other officials viewed a targeted strike at Soleimani as a potentially more agreeable option for the president, who publicly expressed concerns for the collateral damage predicted for the September option.
Those fears, the officials said, led them to view the broader matrix of threats from Iran and its proxies with greater severity, an assessment compounded by the swiftness with which the Iranian proxy in Iraq, Kata'ib Hezbollah, helped organize the siege of the U.S. Embassy after the Dec. 29 U.S. strike against the group believed responsible for killing a U.S. contractor on Dec. 27.
Soleimani had been in the crosshairs of the U.S. before — at least once in 2007 — but two administrations had rejected operations to kill him, wary of the consequences of striking down Iranian military leader. The final go-ahead to strike Soleimani came two weeks ago, once it became apparent that there was a window of opportunity because of new intelligence on his travel plans.
The strike against Soleimani, among the most powerful figures in Iran, was deliberately disproportionate to reset the cycle of violence and reinstate “deterrence” by demonstrating that the U.S. could respond overwhelmingly and decisively at its choosing, the officials said in relating how the strike was conceived.
The killing was a risky move that brought the two nations closer to war than at any point in recent memory. Iran's ballistic missile strikes last week on two Iraqi bases that house American troops was one of the most directs attacks by Iran on the U.S. since the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage taking in Tehran.
Even as tensions appear to cool, the long-term effects of the strike are unclear and will likely be difficult to predict, given the wide breadth and capabilities of Iran's network of proxies.
Still, U.S. officials defend the strike as restoring a check on Iran's aggression. Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Esper quoted CIA Director Gina Haspel, who, on a secure video conference, had summed up the stakes for the president: "The risk of inaction is greater than risk of action.”
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann, Matthew Lee, Robert Burns and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.