Aides to US President Donald Trump reportedly did not expect him to approve the killing of Iran’s top general, which was presented to him as one of a range of options as a response to the killing of an American contractor and the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad by pro-Iranian protesters.
The Pentagon said the US military killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in Baghdad Friday at the direction of Trump.
Trump was told that Soleimani was linked to the contractor’s killing and the embassy attack. The Iranian general was also said to be orchestrating planned attacks on American targets in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
The Defense Department said Soleimani “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” The attack is expected to draw severe Iranian retaliation, potentially against both American and Israeli interests.
Trump’s final pre-strike consultations were held over the past few days behind the palm trees at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, where the president has spent two weeks largely out of sight before his impeachment trial in the Senate. In the days before the attack, Trump huddled with aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien.
According to the LA Times, Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff traveled to Florida to brief the US president.
A senior official familiar with the discussions who was not authorized to talk about the meeting on the record told the newspaper that Trump picked the killing of Soleimani out of a number of options proposed.
According to the outlet, Trump’s decision was influenced by Iran hawks among his advisers.
Aides told the New York Times that Trump’s decision was made due to his anger about a rocket attack that killed an American civilian contractor, as well as television images of pro-Iranian protesters storming the US Embassy in Baghdad. Trump spent much of this vacation angry about the the killing of the contractor, and stayed largely out of sight in Florida, emerging only for rounds of golf at his other nearby club and mingling with guests at a New Year’s Eve party.
Wearing a tux at the party, Trump was asked by a reporter if he foresaw a chance of war with Iran. Raising his voice to be heard over the holiday revelers, Trump said he wanted “to have peace.”
“And Iran should want peace more than anybody,” he said, giving no indication of the momentous decision he was already weighing.
“So I don’t see that happening. No, I don’t think Iran would want that to happen. It would go very quickly,” Trump said.
The Pentagon has said Soleimani had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the past few months, including on December 27, the day the contractor was killed.
Soleimani “also approved the attacks” on the US embassy in Baghdad, according to the Pentagon.
An anonymous American official told the New York Times that advisers to Trump were increasingly concerned that his continued assertions that he did not want a war with Iran meant that Tehran no longer feared a response.
After the decision was made, US intelligence services worked to locate Soleimani, knowing the Iranian general was in the middle of an extended trip around the region, and discovered that he was due to fly from Damascus to Baghdad.
Most national security officials did not want to attack Soleimani in Iraq, given the presence of US troops there and the already tenuous situation on the ground. Some argued for the operation to occur when Soleimani was traveling in Lebanon or Syria. But when they learned Soleimani would be traveling to Baghdad on January 2, they decided targeting him at the airport was their best opportunity.
“He was personally going to a few locations for final planning authority for what we assessed to be something big,” officials told the LA Times.
Officials believed they had a legal justification and would cite intelligence suggesting that Soleimani was traveling in the Middle East to put final touches on plans for attacks that would have hit US diplomats, soldiers and American facilities in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
US officials have not been more specific about the intelligence. A congressional aide briefed by the administration on Friday said officials offered compelling details about Iran’s intentions and capabilities, but not about the timing of the supposed attacks on Americans.
The deliberations and Trump’s final decision came quickly enough that in the hours before the attack early Friday in Baghdad, contingency plans for a potential Iranian response were still being finalized. The White House communications team was not given a heads-up about the strike, leaving the staff scrambling as news of the explosion spread.
The president told one confidant after the attack that he wanted to deliver a warning to Iran not to mess with American assets. Trump said he was also eager to project global strength and replicate the message he believed he sent last year after approving the raid to kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: the US would find its enemies anywhere in the world.
In the days following his decision to order the killing of Soleimani, Trump dropped multiple hints to guests at his Mar-a-Lago resort that he was working on a “big” response to Iran that they they would hear about “soon,” the Daily Beast reported.
The hints to guests at the Florida club came despite complaints from leading Democrats that there was no advance notification of the strike to Congress.
The White House traditionally notifies senior members of both parties in the Senate and House of Representatives ahead of major military action. But top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer “was not given advanced notice” of the strike, a senior Democratic aide told AFP.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the administration conducted the airstrike without consultation of Congress or an authorization for use of military force against Iran. The strike conducted against Soleimani “went forward with no notification or consultation with Congress,” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel similarly said in a statement.