The unexpected killing of the leader of Iran’s elite Quds force represents one of the president’s boldest military maneuvers while in office, and marks perhaps the most serious escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran since Trump withdrew from the multinational nuclear pact with Iran in 2018.
The general’s death in the opening days of a presidential election year is also likely to elevate the issue of American foreign policy in the Middle East as Trump wages a competitive campaign for a second term in the White House.
“While Iran will never be able to properly admit it, Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country,” Trump tweeted. “They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the hosts of “Fox & Friends” that even though Trump does not “seek war” with Iran, the administration will “respond appropriately” if Tehran does not move to de-escalate tensions with the United States.
“The president’s been pretty clear. We don’t seek war with Iran,” Pompeo said.
“But we, at the same time, are not going to stand by and watch the Iranians escalate and continue to put American lives at risk without responding in a way that disrupts, defends, deters and creates an opportunity to deescalate the situation,” he said.
Although officials in Tehran have vowed revenge against the U.S. for Soleimani’s death, Pompeo said Friday that he hopes Iran’s “decision will be to deescalate” rather than pursue a course of retaliation.
“In the event that they do not, in the event they go the other direction, I know that President Trump and the entire United States government is prepared to respond appropriately,” he said.
Pompeo on Friday morning also participated in several phone calls with senior foreign diplomats, including those from China, Germany and the United Kingdom, regarding Trump’s decision to eliminate Soleimani “in response to imminent threats to American lives,” according to State Department readouts of the conversations.
The secretary largely declined to detail the nature of those “imminent threats” in a separate interview with CNN, but insisted the president’s call “to remove Qassem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There’s no doubt about that.”
Soleimani “was actively plotting in the region to take actions — big action, as he described it — that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk,” Pompeo said, adding that “last night was the time that we needed to strike to make sure that this imminent attack, that he was working actively, was disrupted.”
Pompeo did acknowledge that the threats removed by Soleimani’s death were “located in the region” as opposed to the U.S. homeland, and said the intelligence community had assessed that “the risk of doing nothing was enormous.”
Pompeo similarly declined to elaborate on a State Department advisory issued early Friday urging American citizens to “depart Iraq immediately.”
Iraqi and other media have reported that Soleimani died in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport, and Trump earlier this week blamed Iran for a breach of the U.S. embassy compound in the Iraqi capital.
“Make no mistake about it, the Trump administration is focused on protecting Americans to the maximum extent feasible,” Pompeo said. “We made the conclusion that a statement that we issued was appropriate, that the timing was right for that.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi condemned the U.S. strike in a statement Friday, charging that “carrying out operations to assassinate Iraqi figures and figures from another country on Iraqi soil is a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, expressed support for Trump’s directive. “Just as Israel has the right of self-defense, the United States has exactly the same right,” he told reporters Friday.
Trump drew Iraq further into the rapidly intensifying conflict between the U.S. and Iran in a pair of tweets later Friday morning, seizing upon anti-Iranian sentiment among Iraqi protesters in recent months.
“The United States has paid Iraq Billions of Dollars a year, for many years. That is on top of all else we have done for them,” the president wrote. “The people of Iraq don’t want to be dominated & controlled by Iran, but ultimately, that is their choice. Over the last 15 years, Iran has gained more and more control over Iraq, and the people of Iraq are not happy with that. It will never end well!”
The president also wrote online earlier in the morning that “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!” — an adage previously employed by his hawkish former national security adviser, John Bolton, who praised the administration in a tweet Friday.
“Congratulations to all involved in eliminating Qassem Soleimani,” Bolton wrote. “Long in the making, this was a decisive blow against Iran’s malign Quds Force activities worldwide. Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s top congressional advisers on matters of foreign policy, echoed the White House’s characterization of Soleimani’s killing Friday, calling it a “preemptive, defensive strike planned to take out the organizer of of attacks yet to come.”
Graham also revealed that he was “briefed about the potential operation” while visiting Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, where the president has spent his holiday vacation.
“I appreciate being brought into the orbit,” he said. “I really appreciate President Trump letting the world know you cannot kill an American without impunity.”
But unlike Graham, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not informed of the strike ahead of time, saying in a statement late Thursday that the deadly action “was taken without the consultation of Congress.”
Pelosi spoke with Defense Secretary Mark Esper after the assault, around 9:40 p.m., according to a Democratic source with knowledge of the call. The two leaders talked for 13 minutes and afterwards Pelosi issued a statement calling for a full congressional briefing on the airstrike.
“The full Congress must be immediately briefed on this serious situation and on the next steps under consideration by the Administration, including the significant escalation of the deployment of additional troops to the region,” Pelosi said in her statement.
So far, that briefing has yet to be scheduled, according to Democratic aides.
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.