Trump on Soleimani Killing: We Took Action to Prevent War With Iran, Not Start One

President reiterates that top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was plotting attacks against American targets, while Russia says killing 'grossly violates international law'

Amir Tibon
Reuters
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U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks following the U.S. Military airstrike against Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq, in West Palm Beach, Florida	U.S. on January 3, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks following the U.S. Military airstrike against Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq, in West Palm Beach, Florida U.S. on January 3, 2020.Credit: TOM BRENNER/ REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he ordered the killing of Qassem Soleimani to stop a war, not start one, saying the Iranian military commander was planning imminent attacks on Americans.

"Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him," Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

"We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war," Trump said, adding that the United States does not seek regime change in Iran.

A senior U.S. official made similar statements also on Friday, saying that Soleimani, Tehran's most prominent military commander, was planning imminent attacks on U.S. diplomats and troops in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

A U.S. strike in Baghdad on Friday killed Soleimani, a 62-year-old general who headed the overseas arm of the Revolutionary Guards and was seen as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Later on Friday, White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said that any Iranian retaliation would be a "very poor decision," adding that Soleimani was planning attacks against American military personnel and diplomats in the Middle East.

Russia's foreign minister told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone conversation late Friday that Soleimani's killing "grossly violates international law and should be condemned."

Sergey Lavrov said "the move by the U.S. is fraught with severe consequences for the peace of stability in the region and doesn't help resolve complicated problems in the Middle East," according to a statement the Foreign Ministry released on its website.

Lavrov urged Washington to "stop using unlawful methods of force" in trying to achieve its foreign policy goals and instead bring "any problems to the negotiating table."

Speaking to a small group of reporters on condition of anonymity, U.S. officials cast their decision to kill Soleimani as an act of self-defense.

"Soleimani was planning imminent attacks against American diplomats and armed forces members in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and in the region," the senior official said on condition of anonymity. "This was an action taken in self defense, and the United States has the inherent right to defend itself, if it is faced with an attack."

While acknowledging the possibility of Iranian retaliation – which Tehran has promised – senior U.S. officials argued that Soleimani's killing deprived Iran of one of its most ingenious commanders and could deter future attacks.

"We cannot promise that we have broken the circle of violence," said a second official. "What I can say from my experience with Qassem Soleimani is it is less likely that we will see this now than it was before and, if we do see an increase in violence, it probably will not be as devilishly ingenious."

'Imminent,' but how soon?

After Trump's statement, some U.S. national security and congressional officials are raising questions about the use of the word "imminent," a characterization used both by Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo, to justify the killing.

Senator Mark Warner, the Democrat who serves as Vice-Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Reuters on Friday after a briefing: "I believe there was a threat, but the question of how imminent is still one I want answered."

The word "imminent" implies attacks against American targets were about to happen and could help the Trump administration make a legal argument that killing Soleimani was an act of self-defense.

Pushed on the question during a briefing for journalists on Friday, a senior State Department official said: "Whether the specific plots that (Soleimani) has unleashed were so far advanced that they may be able to carry them out, I don't know."

A Pentagon statement late on Thursday said Soleimani had been "actively developing plans" to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region, but did not use the word "imminent."

In television interviews early on Friday, Pompeo said the killing of the Iranian general disrupted an "imminent attack" on American targets. Later in the day, Trump weighed in.

"Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him," Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

U.S. Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that violent plots by Soleimani might still happen despite his death.

As chief of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Soleimani was the key organizer of subversive and paramilitary activities by pro-Iranian and pro-Shiite militant groups across the Middle East, according to U.S. officials.

Another congressional source familiar with U.S. intelligence reporting on the threats said briefings given by intelligence officials to Congress indicated that claims that Iranian-organized attacks on Americans in the region were imminent were "wildly exaggerated."

The second source said that while intelligence indicating Soleimani was in contact with persons involved in actively plotting attacks, Congress had not been presented with convincing evidence that such plots were on the verge of being carried out.

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