WASHINGTON (AP) – Confronted by persistent questions about his military action in the Middle East, United States (US) President Donald Trump and his top officials offered a string of fresh explanations on Friday, with Trump now contending Iranian militants had planned major attacks on four US embassies.
Just hours earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said the US didn’t know when or where attacks might occur.
Trump and other officials insisted anew that Iranian General Qassem Soleimani had posed an imminent threat to the US, but they rebuffed repeated attempts to explain what they meant by “imminent.”
Trump, meanwhile, announced additional sanctions against Iran, which he had promised after a barrage of missiles fired by the Islamic Republic against American bases in Iraq earlier this week.
Those Iranian missiles, which caused no casualties, were prompted by the US drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani last week in Baghdad.
That US assault set off a chain of events that included the unintentional downing of a Ukrainian jetliner by the Iran military, and calls by the Iraqi government to expel US troops from their country.
At the White House, Trump issued an executive order adding additional US sanctions to the already long list his administration had imposed in an effort to force Iran to accept a new agreement that would curb its nuclear programme and to halt support for militant groups throughout the Middle East.
Trump declared the US was holding Iran responsible for attacks against the US as well as a threat to US service members, diplomats and civilians – an apparent reference to the justification for killing Soleimani.
“The United States will continue to counter the Iranian regime’s destructive and destabilising behaviour,” he said.
But Trump and others faced continuing questions over their claims of an “imminent” threat. Members of Congress said Pompeo and other officials did not provide sufficient detail or justification in briefings this week.
Define what you mean by imminent, Pompeo was asked on Friday at a White House news conference.
“I don’t know exactly which minute,” Pompeo said. “We don’t know exactly which day it would have been executed, but it was very clear. Qassem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests and those attacks were imminent.”
Both Pompeo and Trump had said US embassies were threatened. The secretary of state broadened it to include “American facilities,” including military bases throughout the region. “This was going to happen, and American lives were at risk,” he said.
Trump gave a more worrisome number but still no specifics in a later comment.
“I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” he told Fox News in an interview taped on Friday.
He spoke amid revelations by US officials that the American military had tried, but failed, to kill another senior Iranian commander on the same day that Soleimani was killed.
The targetting of Abdul Reza Shahlai was apparently part of an effort to cripple the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, which the US has designated a terror organisation along with the larger Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the killing of Soleimani “provocative and disproportionate,” and other members said they were unconvinced after a closed-door briefing on the intelligence.
“President Trump recklessly assassinated Qasem Soleimani,” said Rep Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat. “He had no evidence of an imminent threat or attack.”
The new sanctions were in immediate response to Iran’s firing of a barrage of missiles at American bases in neighbouring Iraq this week after the killing of Soleimani. No one was injured. The larger US goal is to force Iran to negotiate a new agreement on limiting its nuclear programme.
In 2018, Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement signed under President Barack Obama that traded curbs on the programme for the easing of sanctions.
Since then, the administration has added additional economic measures that have created hardship in Iran and brought its oil revenue to historic lows but have failed to bring the Iranian government to the negotiating table.
The sanctions added on Friday include measures aimed at eight senior Iranian officials involved in what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called “destabilising” activities throughout the Middle East as well as Tuesday’s missile barrage.
Those measures, which would freeze any assets the officials have in US jurisdiction and prohibit financial transactions with them, are largely symbolic since such senior figures are unlikely to have assets under American control after decades of hostility between the two nations.