The U.S. military may strike more Iranian leaders if the Islamic Republic retaliates for the Trump administration’s killing of Tehran’s most powerful general last week by attacking Americans or American interests, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday.
As Pompeo conducted a round of TV interviews to explain President Donald Trump’s decision to target Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the repercussions from that attack played out: The Iraqi Parliament called on the 5,200 U.S. forces in the country to leave; the U.S. military coalition in Baghdad suspended training of Iraqi forces to concentrate on defending coalition troops; and in Beirut, the Lebanese Hezbollah chief said U.S. 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.”
Trump continued issuing warnings to Iran by tweet. “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!”
The tweet also appeared to serve as a warning to Congress – that Trump would respond quickly to any attack and without first gaining the approval of lawmakers. Democrats in Congress have complained that Trump’s order to kill Soleimani took place without first consulting with or informing top lawmakers, noting that Congress still holds sole power to declare war. Trump did meet the 48-hour deadline required by the War Powers Act to notify Congress of the deadly drone strike, though the document provided Saturday was entirely classified and no public version was released.
The White House faced a barrage of questions about the killing’s legality. On Sunday, 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 American
Instead of arguing that an attack had been imminent, Pompeo said it was inevitable.
“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.”
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 vacation 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 U.S. should expect a strong response. They have a range of options, from cyberattacks to military assaults.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”
He said the cost to Iran if it uses proxy forces to hit American targets will come down on not 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.”
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 U.N. 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 U.S. military strikes inside Iran would be legal.
“We’ll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said. “We always have and we always will.”
One U.S. 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 U.S. 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 ago, 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.