Trump threatens ‘disproportionate’ response to any Iranian attacks on US targets
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'We're going to respond against the actual decision-makers'

Trump threatens ‘disproportionate’ response to any Iranian attacks on US targets

Pompeo warns that US could hit additional Iranian leaders if Tehran retaliates for killing of Soleimani; US military said to detect Iranian missile force on high alert

Supporters of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or the MEK, an Iranian exile group, hold signs and flags during a show of support for a US airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in Lafayette Park across from the White House, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Supporters of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or the MEK, an Iranian exile group, hold signs and flags during a show of support for a US airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in Lafayette Park across from the White House, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump on Sunday warned Tehran that the US would respond quickly to any any Iranian strike and threatened that American retaliation could be disproportionate.

Trump’s warning, in a Tweet sent Sunday afternoon was framed as a notice to Congress of his intent to act.

“These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner,” he wrote Sunday afternoon. “Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”

His warning came after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US military may strike more Iranian leaders if the Islamic Republic retaliates for the killing of Tehran’s most powerful general last week by attacking Americans or American interests.

As Pompeo conducted a round of TV interviews to explain Trump’s decision to target Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the repercussions from that attack played out: The Iraqi Parliament called on the 5,200 US forces in the country to leave; the US military coalition in Baghdad suspended training of Iraqi forces to concentrate on defending coalition troops; and in Beirut, the Lebanese Hezbollah chief said US forces throughout the Mideast are fair targets for retaliation.

Even a Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the move by Iraqi lawmakers “a bit concerning.”

In Tehran, Iranian state television reported that the country will no longer abide by any limits of the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the United States and other world powers. Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and stepped up economic sanctions on Tehran — actions that accelerated a cycle of hostilities leading to the Soleimani killing.

Iranian lawmakers chant anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans to protest against the US killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, at the start of an open session of parliament in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 5, 2020. (Mohammad Hassanzadeh/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

The State Department had no immediate comment on Iran reportedly abandoning the nuclear deal, a move that holds the prospect of Iran accelerating its production of materials for a nuclear weapon.

Missile Alert

Meanwhile, the US has detected a heightened state of alert by Iran’s missile forces across the country, a US official told the Reuters news agency on Sunday, adding it was unclear whether the higher readiness level was defensive in nature or not.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, gave no further details and did not say whether the Iranian missiles were aimed at any specific targets.

An Iranian clergyman looks at domestically built surface to surface missiles displayed by the Revolutionary Guard in a military show marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, February 3, 2019. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

“They’re clearly at a heightened state of alert. Is that heightened state of alert to be better prepared defensively or to be better prepared offensively? That can’t be determined at this point,” the official said. “But we’re watching it closely.”

Democrats in Congress complained about the administration’s failure to consult with legislative leaders before conducting the drone attack Friday against Soleimani, and the White House faced a barrage of questions about the killing’s legality. Pompeo said the administration would have been “culpably negligent” in its duty to protect the United States if it had not killed Soleimani, although he did not provide evidence for his previous claims that Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on Americans.

Instead of arguing that an attack had been imminent, Pompeo said it was inevitable.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (left) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (right) listen as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a statement on Iraq and Syria, December 29, 2019. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

“We watched him continue to actively build out for what was going to be a significant attack – that’s what we believed – and we made the right decision,” he said, adding later: “We continue to prepare for whatever it is the Iranian regime may put in front of us within the next 10 minutes, within the next 10 days, and within the next 10 weeks.”

No authority

Congressional Democrats were skeptical.

“I really worry that the actions the president took will get us into what he calls another endless war in the Middle East. He promised we wouldn’t have that,” said Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate’s top Democrat.

Schumer said Trump lacks the authority to engage militarily with Iran and Congress needs a new war powers resolution “to be a check on this president.” To which Pompeo said: “We have all the authority we need to do what we’ve done to date.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said the administration violated the Constitution by not consulting with Congress in advance.

“It’s also important because one, you potentially get members of Congress to buy in ahead of time, and two, they may ask that hard question that’s not asked in an insular group,” Warner said.

Congressional staffs got their first briefings from the administration on Friday, and members are expected to be briefed this week.

Pompeo appeared on six news shows while Trump kept silent on the final day of his holiday break in Florida. The appearances by the top American diplomat appeared aimed at dissuading Iran from launching a major retaliation for the Soleimani killing. The Iranians have said the US should expect a strong response. They have a range of options, from cyberattacks to military assaults.

De-escalation

It was unclear whether the administration would attempt a back door communication with Iran in pursuit of its stated goal of “de-escalation” of tensions. Retired Gen. David Petraeus, an ex-CIA director and former commander of US forces in Iraq, said he believes the administration needs a strategy for tamping down the chances of all-out war.

“I think the real question for the United States is, will there be a diplomatic initiative that says, OK, look, this is not headed in a good direction. We truly do want to de-escalate. Everyone is going to lose if this continues to ratchet upward. Can we now sit down and talk,” Petraeus said.

Pompeo declined to say whether he had sought to communicate with Iran since Friday. He stressed the US resolve to hold Iran accountable for its interventions in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Mideast.

Pompeo said the Obama administration had tried to “challenge and attack everybody who was running around with an AK-47 or a piece of indirect artillery. We’ve made a very different approach. We’ve told the Iranian regime, ‘Enough. You can’t get away with using proxy forces and think your homeland will be safe and secure.’ We’re going to respond against the actual decision-makers, the people who are causing this threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Shiite Muslims burn an effigy of US President Donald Trump during a protest against the US strike that killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, in Multan on January 5, 2020. (SS MIRZA / AFP)

He said the cost to Iran if it uses proxy forces to hit American targets will come down on no just those proxies, which are present in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere.

“They will be borne by Iran and its leadership itself,” Pompeo said. “Those are important things the Iranian leadership needs to put in its calculus as it makes its next decision.”

Cultural targets

Pompeo tip-toed around questions about Trump’s tweet Saturday threatening to attack Iranian cultural sites, a military action that likely would be illegal under the laws of armed conflict and the UN charter.

Trump wrote that if Iran were to strike “any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

Pompeo said any US military strikes inside Iran would be legal.

“We’ll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said. “We always have and we always will.”

A burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, in which Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed January 3, 2020. (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP)

One US national security official said Trump’s threat had caught many in the administration off guard and prompted calls for others in the government, including Pompeo, to clarify the matter. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly to the issue, said clarification was necessary to affirm that the US military would not intentionally commit war crimes.

Oona Hathaway, an international law professor at Yale and a former national security law official in the Defense Department’s legal office, said in an interview that Trump’s threat amounted to “a pretty clear promise of commission of a war crime.” She said the Soleimani killing likely also was illegal because the administration has not shown the threat he posed was imminent in the sense that it was so urgent that action was required without consulting Congress.

She cited legal problems with both of Trump’s Saturday threats — the threat to hit 52 targets in Iran for symbolic reasons, and the threat to strike Iranian cultural sites. Both, she said, would be war crimes — the targeting of 52 sites because Trump justifies it on symbolic grounds of retribution for Iran’s hostage-taking 40 years, and the hitting of cultural sites because that would be illegal under the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural sites.

The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, referred questions about the Trump tweet to the White House.

Pompeo appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” CNN’s “State of the Union,” NBC’s “Meet the Press,”’ CBS’ “Face the Nation,” ”Fox News Sunday” and Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” Schumer was on ABC, Petraeus was on CBS, and Graham was on Fox News Channel.

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