Written by Edward Wong
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran on Sunday that the United States could attack the country within its borders and its leaders if they take hostile actions against US interests in the aftermath of the drone strike that killed a top general.
“I’ve been part of the discussion and planning process — everything I’ve seen about how we will respond with great force and great vigor if the Iranian leadership makes a bad decision,” Pompeo said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We hope that they won’t, but when they do, America will respond.
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“We will be bold in protecting American interests, and we’ll do so in a way that’s consistent with the rule of law,” he added.
In appearances on six television news shows Sunday morning, Pompeo underscored President Donald Trump’s message the previous day that the United States had chosen sites to attack within Iran if the country ordered assaults on US assets or citizens in retaliation for the drone strike in Baghdad that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Trump wrote on Twitter that the United States had picked 52 sites, “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” that “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”
The targeting of cultural sites is against international law, and critics denounced Trump for his statement.
On Sunday afternoon, Trump announced on Twitter that his Twitter posts themselves were notifications to Congress “that should Iran strike any US person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner.”
The comments by Trump and Pompeo on potential US attacks on Iran are certain to increase tensions with Congress, where Democrats and some Republicans said the Trump administration has no authorization to enter into war with Iran.
Lawmakers have criticized Trump for not telling them in advance of the strike on Soleimani. Among those attacking Trump’s actions is Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who wrote on Twitter that the main question “is whether the assassination of Soleimani will expand the war to endanger the lives of every American soldier or diplomat in the Middle East?”
When asked Sunday by several interviewers whether the United States would attack cultural sites, Pompeo avoided answering directly. He said on ABC’s “This Week” that the United States would “behave lawfully” and “behave inside the system.”
In one appearance, Pompeo said the costs of any attacks by Iran or its partners on US interests would “be borne by Iran and its leadership itself.”
Pompeo made his statements as Iraq’s Parliament voted to expel more than 5,000 US troops from Iraq. The US military has been fighting the Islamic State, a Sunni militant group that seized enormous swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 but is now transforming into an insurgency after years of military defeats.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq, a Shiite leader who has ties to Tehran, Iran, has criticized the presence of US troops following the strike on Soleimani, though he has not yet signed Parliament’s bill.
US military officials said Sunday that they were suspending operations against the Islamic State as US forces braced for retaliation by Iran and its partners.
Asked about the Iraqi Parliament’s vote, Pompeo said on the CBS program “Face the Nation” that the United States would continue to battle the Islamic State. “It is the United States that is prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve and continue our mission there to take down terrorism from ISIS and others in the region,” he said.
In Tehran, the country’s national security council ended its commitments to limits on uranium enrichment in a nuclear deal that Iran reached in 2015 with the United States, China, Russia and three Western European nations. Trump withdrew from the agreement in May 2018 and reimposed major sanctions on Iran, starting Washington and Tehran on the current path of confrontation.
The other nations in the deal had tried to urge Iran to adhere to the agreement, as it had been doing until the recent cycles of escalation. After Trump reimposed sanctions, Iran began breaching certain limits on nuclear activities.
Pompeo told CNN that “this war kicked off” when the Obama administration entered into the nuclear agreement. Even when Iran had been abiding by the terms of the deal, Pompeo said, the agreement gave Iran “free rein” to expand its regional activities.
Former Obama administration officials who worked on Middle East issues said the actions of Trump and his aides had resulted in greater dangers to the United States and American citizens.
“The vote in Iraq to seek full US withdrawal is just the beginning of the predictable consequences of Trump’s reckless escalation with Iran,” said Jeffrey Prescott, senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf States on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “We should expect to see Iran accelerate its nuclear program as well.
“The bottom line is this: Trump and Pompeo promised that pulling out of the Iran deal and imposing ‘maximum pressure’ would get us new negotiations, a ‘better deal,’ further limits on Iran’s nuclear program and deter Iran’s regional aggression,” he added. “Nothing of the sort has happened.”
Analysts of Iran and US policy said the killing of Soleimani and other actions by the Trump administration appeared to be taking place in the absence of any larger strategy.
“This strike has not changed the problem that the United States still has no clear strategy toward Iran,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, an Iran expert at the RAND Corporation, a research group that often advises the US government. “What do we want to accomplish? If the goal of maximum pressure was to create better Iranian behavior or a better nuclear deal, it’s hard to see how this strike advances either objective.”
John Gans, a former Defense Department speechwriter and author of a new book on the National Security Council, said Trump’s aggressive tweets on Iran “make Pompeo’s job — marshaling diplomatic support and mitigating opposition — much harder and will only inspire congressional opposition and action.”
Iranian officials reacted forcefully to Trump’s tweet Saturday about targeting 52 sites in their country. The head of the Parliament’s national security committee, Mojtaba Zolnour, said that if the United States attacked 52 places — a number Trump has said is based on the number of US hostages taken by Iranians in 1979 — Iran would retaliate and attack as many places as there are Quranic verses.
Hossein Dehghan, military adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, told CNN that Iran’s response “will be military and attack US military targets.”
Trump’s tweet has become a unifying call among many Iranians. They are sharing it widely across social media networks and phone applications with the message, “Attend the funeral for our cultural heritage.”
Pompeo did not give any new details Sunday of what he and other aides to Trump have said was intelligence showing “imminent attacks” that Soleimani had been planning on US interests in the Middle East. Some Pentagon officials have said there was no intelligence on Iran that was different from the ordinary stream of risk alerts.
When Congress starts its new session this coming week, lawmakers are certain to press Trump, Pompeo and other senior officials on the intelligence and on war authorization for any future military strikes against Iran.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich. and a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official who worked in Iraq, said Friday that the administration must brief Congress as soon as possible and ask for congressional war authorization if it intended to carry out protracted actions.
“Congress needs to understand the administration’s plan as soon as possible,” she said.
The executive branch has an open-ended war authorization given by Congress in 2001 to go after al-Qaida and partner groups in retaliation for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Last year, some members of Congress and aides said senior administration officials appeared to be making an implicit case in briefings with Congress that the 2001 authorization could encompass Iran; the officials’ argument was that Iran has had ties to al-Qaida and Taliban figures. Vice President Mike Pence wrote a tweet Friday with falsehoods linking Iran to al-Qaida.
On Friday, Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, said the strike on Soleimani had been legally permitted under a 2002 authorization from Congress that allowed President George W. Bush to wage war on Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi nation.