Iran’s retaliation was just as muted as its threats. Tehran could have targeted large, heavily populated U.S. bases across the Persian Gulf, all of which are within range of Iranian missiles. Instead, it fired a handful of missiles at bases in Iraq, in an attack that deliberately did not target American troops. The Iranians warned Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in advance of the attack — a message they knew he would pass on to the United States. To control the outcome, they carried out the strike themselves, rather than relying on Shiite militia proxies in Iraq, who might accidentally kill an American. According to Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin, the Pentagon “believes there was a political decision taken in Tehran NOT to kill Americans … Even within that target, the Iranians chose to hit dirt rather than runways … so as not to escalate militarily.”
The objective appeared to be political, not military. They wanted their people to see Iranian missiles firing at the Americans, without actually killing one — provoking an even more devastating U.S. response. And once it was over, Zarif announced on Twitter that Iran’s response was complete and meekly added that “we do not seek escalation or war.”
In other words, the Iranians blinked. All the overwrought warnings of a U.S.-Iran conflagration were wrong. Trump understood what his critics did not — that the Iranian regime’s No. 1 priority is the preservation of the regime. Before the Soleimani strike, Iran doubted Trump’s resolve. After the Soleimani strike, they knew Trump was serious when the president warned that next time “Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” Trump has treated Iran for what it is — a bully. When confronted, bullies back down.
Far from provoking war, Trump’s action against Soleimani might have prevented one. Iran had been escalating for months — striking allied oil tankers, U.S. drones and Saudi oil facilities — with no significant U.S. response. This failure to respond emboldened Tehran. Had Trump allowed Iran to get away crossing his red line and killing an American, they would have been further emboldened. Instead, by taking out Soleimani, Trump put the regime on its heels. As the president put it in his address to the nation Wednesday: “For far too long … nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond. Those days are over.”
In his excellent speech, Trump rightly castigated the Obama administration for providing the Iranian regime with billions in sanctions relief as part of its nuclear deal, noting that “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” He might well have added that Soleimani’s reign of terror was directly subsidized by those funds. When Trump came into office, Iran was on the march across the Middle East — in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen — thanks in part to the money President Barack Obama released. We were promised that the nuclear deal would alter Iran’s malign behavior. Instead, it was an accelerant. With his maximum-pressure campaign, Trump has removed the accelerant. And with his strike against Soleimani, he has eliminated the mastermind of Iran’s proxy wars across the Middle East and restored deterrence. Now he must maintain it.
U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read
Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.
What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.
Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.
How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.
What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.539 Comments
Democrats Press for Details on Suleimani Strike, but Trump Administration Gives Few
Administration officials argue that the general was plotting imminent attacks, but Democrats said that the intelligence they have seen was too vague.
WASHINGTON — Under increasing pressure to defend the killing of a top Iranian general in Iraq, senior Trump administration officials offered new justifications but little detail on Tuesday, citing threats to the American Embassy in Baghdad and intelligence suggesting other imminent attacks that helped prompt the strike.
Democrats stepped up their criticism of intelligence that the administration provided immediately after the drone strike last week that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The administration’s formal notification to Congress, which remains classified, provided no information on future threats or the imminent attack, officials who have read it said.
Several said it was improperly classified, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, called it “vague and unacceptably unspecific.” Lawmakers pressed for more answers on Tuesday at a briefing by the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, and other intelligence officials.
Iranian forces or their proxies were days from attacking American personnel when President Trump decided to strike General Suleimani, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. Mr. Esper added that General Suleimani had traveled to Baghdad to coordinate attacks following up on a two-day siege of the United States Embassy there last week by pro-Iranian demonstrators. He declined to elaborate but called the intelligence “exquisite.”
Mr. Trump was more forceful but no more specific. General Suleimani “was planning a very big attack and a very bad attack for us and other people,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “And we stopped him.”
Their defense of the killing came as Tehran launched its initial response, firing a dozen ballistic missiles early Wednesday from Iranian territory targeting American forces in Iraq’s Anbar Province and Kurdish region. A Pentagon official confirmed that the missiles were launched at bases hosting American forces, but provided no initial damage assessment.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered a direct and proportional response to the Suleimani killing, not the kind of covert action through proxy forces that Tehran has traditionally employed. American officials in recent weeks warned about the threat from short-range ballistic missiles that Iran had smuggled into Iraq.
As the threats from Tehran increased, several NATO allies conducting training for Iraqi troops — including Canada, Germany and Croatia — decided at least temporarily to remove some troops from Iraq. Canada, which leads the NATO training mission, announced it was withdrawing its 500 troops and sending them to Kuwait.
Fueled by what they have called weak and inadequate briefings from the administration, Democrats grew increasingly vocal in their skepticism, arguing the administration has a high burden to meet to show that the strike was justified.
Some drew comparisons to the flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the recent revelations about the failures of the war in Afghanistan.
“Between no weapons of mass destruction, no clear and present danger, the Afghanistan papers — there’s plenty to be skeptical about,” Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a brief interview. “The burden is on the administration to prove the truthfulness and veracity of how they made their decision.”
Ms. Haspel has spoken with multiple lawmakers in recent days, some of whom have urged her to be more forthcoming about the intelligence behind the killing. Ms. Haspel, in turn, has emphasized that she had serious concerns about the threat posed by General Suleimani if the administration held off on targeting him.
Before the drone strike that killed the general, the pro-Iranian protesters had attacked barricades outside the American Embassy in Baghdad, and American officials feared the attacks could resume and the situation could easily grow more dangerous, threatening the diplomats and military personnel who work at the compound.
General Suleimani had arrived in Baghdad to pressure the Iraqi government to kick out American forces after attacks by the United States on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia group with ties to Iran, according to American officials.
One official noted that General Suleimani was traveling with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi who helps lead the Iranian-backed militias and who was coordinating the attacks on the American Embassy. Mr. al-Muhandis was also killed in the strike.
Additionally, the classified document sent to Capitol Hill only recounts the attacks that Iran and its proxies have carried out in recent months and weeks rather than outlining new threats, according to three American officials.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. demanded that Mr. Trump give a “sober-minded explanation” of the strike, its consequences and the intelligence that prompted it.
“All we’ve heard from this administration are shifting explanations, evasive answers, repeated assertions of an imminent threat without the necessary evidence to support that conclusion,” Mr. Biden, a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said in remarks from Pier 59 in New York. If there was a threat, he added, “we’re owed an explanation and the facts to back it up.”
Iranian-supported militias have increasingly directed attacks at Iraqi bases with American forces over the past two months, officials have said. Since May, intelligence and military officials have warned that Iran has been preparing for attacks against Americans in the Middle East.
The reports have prompted the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. to relocate officers out of the American Embassy in Baghdad in recent days and weeks, though some C.I.A. officers were relocated earlier, according to officials briefed on the matter. Some went to other parts of Iraq, and officials emphasized that the moves had not diminished intelligence collection on Iranian activity in the country.
“We’re all going to want to hear why they thought targeting Suleimani was the best option, what were the other targets on the table, did they know about the collateral damage?” he said.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who has long vocally opposed the lengthy deployments of American forces overseas, has emerged as one of the few Republicans willing to criticize the decision. He questioned the administration’s claim of an imminent attack, citing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s repeated criticism of General Suleimani.
“I’ve always been surprised at how presidents in general, including President Obama, stretch the idea of what imminence is,” Mr. Paul said. “I can tell you the secretary of state’s been talking about for over a year all the things Suleimani has done. I think they found this as an opportune time to take him out.”Mr. Pompeo has led the administration’s defense of the strike and said on Tuesday that the intelligence was presented to Mr. Trump in broad detail before he ordered the strike.
“It was the right decision,” Mr. Pompeo said.
And Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, said that General Suleimani was plotting attacks on “diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines” at multiple facilities.
Mr. O’Brien said the intelligence would most likely remain classified to avoid putting sources of intelligence and collection methods at risk. But, he added, “I can tell you that the evidence was strong.”
With the exception of Mr. Paul, most Republicans on Capitol Hill have coalesced around the administration.
“We had very clear, very solid information from the intelligence community that indeed there were going to be imminent attacks that could involve hundreds of people, could involve even thousands of people,” Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters late last week, calling the intelligence “rock solid.”
The House was set this week to consider measures to curtail the president’s war-making powers on Iran by invoking the War Powers Resolution. A similar measure could come to a vote on the Senate floor as early as next week. And the Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee announced a hearing set for next Tuesday on the Trump administration’s Iran policy.