Believe it or not, the Trump administration may not have been completely honest about its policy toward Iran and its rationale for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.
Not that officials have offered a single explanation for why the assassination was carried out — their story has changed numerous times. But the justification they keep returning to is that intelligence indicated an “imminent” threat, that Soleimani was planning specific attacks against American interests and personnel, attacks that were so imminent that he had to be killed to stop them.
On the day the U.S. military killed a top Iranian commander in Baghdad, U.S. forces carried out another top secret mission against a senior Iranian military official in Yemen, according to U.S. officials.
The strike targeting Abdul Reza Shahlai, a financier and key commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen, did not result in his death, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
The unsuccessful operation may indicate that the Trump administration’s killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week was part of a broader operation than previously explained, raising questions about whether the mission was designed to cripple the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or solely to prevent an imminent attack on Americans as originally stated.
The attempt to take out Shahlai simultaneously with Soleimani suggests that this wasn’t an isolated, defensive operation but may have been part of a broader attack on the Quds Force.
Shahlai is operating in Yemen, meaning the conflict he is waging at the moment is less against the United States than against Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a war in Yemen against Iran-backed rebels with our support.
In recent statements, administration officials have noted Shahlai’s role in a 2007 attack on American soldiers in Iraq, his support of Houthi rebels in Yemen and his “long history of involvement in attacks targeting the U.S. and our allies.”
But if someone like Shahlai was planning to attack American forces — let’s say “imminently” — Yemen wouldn’t be the place to do it. Which suggests this may have been part of a broader operation to kill Iranian military leaders.
Democrats sound the alarm
In an interview, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told us there’s “no doubt” in his mind that the assassination of Soleimani and the effort to target Shahlai are part of a wider effort that’s mostly being concealed from Congress.
“The more you hear, the more you realize that you’ve been fed a bunch of untruths,” Engel told us. “Was Shahlai an imminent threat? I think not.”
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added that this news badly complicates the rationale offered for the Soleimani killing.
“This does make it harder for the administration to argue that the operations were solely designed to eliminate somebody who was plotting attacks on Americans,” Malinowski, a former State Department official, told us.
Malinowski also said this new report means Congress will have to orient itself toward asking broader and deeper questions about the administration’s secret military operations.
“If the objective was to weaken the Quds Force irrespective of any intelligence about imminent attacks on Americans, then where does that end?” Malinowski said. “And is it over?”
You’d think Congress could bring in administration officials to answer these questions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been invited to testify next week to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
But Engel told us that Pompeo has not said whether he’ll appear. “Right now it looks like he’s not coming,” Engel told us. “We haven’t heard from him.”
If so, perhaps this is because Pompeo has not been faring well lately when asked tough questions about all this.
On Thursday, he seemed to undercut the administration’s public story by telling Fox News the following about the threats Soleimani posed: “We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real.”
Pompeo has also been struggling to clean up after Trump’s public statements. In extemporaneous remarks Thursday, Trump said Soleimani was about to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — the first time it had been suggested by anyone.
That led Pompeo to tell reporters on Friday: “Soleimani was actively planning new attacks, and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad.”
Numerous Democratic senators are now saying that the threat to embassies was not part of the briefing given to members of Congress on Wednesday.
Which raises the possibility that it’s not actually true, but once the president said it, his national security team felt obligated to back him up.
All of which underscores the urgency of bringing in Pompeo. Will he show up? Who knows?
You’d think these new revelations would make it much harder for Republicans to resist asserting congressional authority over Trump’s war powers. The House has passed a measure requiring Trump to seek congressional authorization for future hostilities against Iran, and the Senate is set to vote on a companion version next week.
The latest news “creates an additional reason for the Senate to follow suit,” Malinowski said, because “if the strategy goes beyond protecting Americans from imminent attack, it could include further strikes.”
If Congress were to assert its authority, it could use the ensuing debate over any future actions to probe more deeply into all the questions that remain unanswered.
It’s hard to imagine that four GOP senators — which is all the war powers measure would need to pass — would not be willing to assert congressional authority, given this latest news and all it indicates about how much we do not know about what the administration is secretly up to.