As Tensions With Iran Escalated, Trump Opted for Most Extreme Measure
In the chaotic days leading to the death of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, top American military officials put the option of killing him — which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq — on the menu they presented to President Trump.
They didn’t think he would take it. In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.
After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shia militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.
By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.
Mr. Trump made the decision, senior officials said on Saturday, despite disputes in the administration about the significance of what some officials said was a new stream of intelligence that warned of threats to American embassies, consulates and military personnel in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. General Suleimani had just completed a tour of his forces in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and was planning an “imminent” attack that could claim hundreds of lives, those officials said.
“Days, weeks,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Friday, when asked how imminent any attacks could be, without offering more detail other than to say that new information about unspecified plotting was “clear and unambiguous.”
But some officials voiced private skepticism about the rationale for a strike on General Suleimani, who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops over the years. According to one United States official, the new intelligence indicated “a normal Monday in the Middle East” — Dec. 30 — and General Suleimani’s travels amounted to “business as usual.”
That official described the intelligence as thin and said that General Suleimani’s attack was not imminent because of communications the United States had between Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and General Suleimani showing that the ayatollah had not yet approved any plans by the general for an attack. The ayatollah, according to the communications, had asked General Suleimani to come to Tehran for further discussions at least a week before his death.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence were two of the most hawkish voices arguing for a response to Iranian aggression, according to administration officials. Mr. Pence’s office helped run herd on meetings and conference calls held by officials in the run-up to the strike.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and General Milley declined to comment for this article, but General Milley’s spokeswoman, Col. DeDe Halfhill, said, without elaborating, that “some of the characterizations being asserted by other sources are false” and that she would not discuss conversations between General Milley and the president.
The fallout from Mr. Trump’s targeted killing is now underway. On Saturday in Iraq, the American military was on alert as tens of thousands of pro-Iranian fighters marched through the streets of Baghdad and calls accelerated to eject the United States from the country. United States Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, said there were two rocket attacks near Iraqi bases that host American troops, but no one was injured.
In Iran, the ayatollah vowed “forceful revenge” as the country mourned the death of General Suleimani.
In Palm Beach, Fla., Mr. Trump lashed back, promising to strike 52 sites across Iran — representing the number of American hostages taken by Iran in 1979 — if Iran attacked Americans or American interests. On Saturday night, Mr. Trump warned on Twitter that some sites were “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”
The president issued those warnings after American spy agencies on Saturday detected that Iranian ballistic missile units across the country had gone to a heightened state of readiness, a United States official said on Saturday night.
Other officials said it was unclear whether Iran was dispersing its ballistic missile units — the heart of the Iranian military — to avoid American attack, or was mobilizing the units for a major strike against American targets or allies in the region in retaliation for General Suleimani’s death.