The Trump administration escalated its threats Sunday to hit Iran’s top leaders with military strikes if Tehran or its proxies carry out any attacks against American personnel or interests in retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani last week.
“We’re going to respond against the actual decision-makers, the people who are causing this threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a televised interview, expounding on a flurry of tweets a day earlier by President Trump, who warned that U.S. officials have already identified 52 possible Iranian targets, a highly symbolic number in the history of U.S.-Iran hostility.
Asked about Iran retaliating, Mr. Trump told reporters on Sunday night, “If it happens, it happens. If they do anything, there will be major retaliation.”
The messaging came amid mounting unsease in Washington and across the Middle East, where Iran’s supreme leader vowed to inflict “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death and other Iranian officials said Sunday that Tehran will now no longer abide by any limits to its nuclear enrichment activities.
While any violent retaliation from Iran is unlikely before the regime in Tehran finishes a third day of official mourning for Soleimani — a period that runs through Monday — the escalating rhetoric coincides a flurry of unnerving developments since the Iranian commander was killed early Friday in Iraq by a U.S. Hellfire missile.
The Iraqi parliament, which American officials say has been increasingly undermined by influence from neighboring Iran in recent years, passed a bill Sunday calling for the expulsion of all U.S. troops from Iraq.
The bill remains subject to approval by Iraq’s top leaders and, even then, would allow at least a year for the some 5,200 U.S. troops in the country to withdraw. But many saw it as a symbolic development, carrying potentially drastic security implications for Iraq, which has relied on U.S. support to crush Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists.
The president said Sunday that the U.S. won’t withdraw troops unless Iraq compensates the U.S. for the possible loss of a major air base there. Mr. Trump threatened to impose “big sanctions” on Iraq if the two sides can’t reach an agreement.
“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there,” Mr. Trump said. “It cost billions of dollars to build. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it. If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis … We will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
He added, “If there’s any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq.”
With that as a backdrop, the U.S.-led military coalition operating in Iraq said Sunday it is putting its fight against ISIS on hold to now focus instead on protecting its troops and bases against the threat of vengeance from Iran’s elite military unit — the Quds Force that Soleimani oversaw — and its regional proxies.
Mohsen Rezaei, a former high-level Iranian military leader, has said the Israeli city of Haifa and other “centers” like Tel Aviv could be directly targeted.
The head of the most powerful of the Iran’s proxies, meanwhile, suggested Sunday that American targets are also very much in view.
Hassan Nasrallah, who heads Lebanon-based Hezbollah, said in Beirut that U.S. military assets across the Middle East, including bases and warships, are fair targets as retaliation for Soleimani’s killing. But he also said that U.S. civilians in the region should not be targeted, because that would help Mr. Trump.
The United States has tens of thousands of troops throughout the region, including in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar — all within range of Iran or its proxies, which U.S. officials say also include the Houthi rebels in Yemen and a hardened group of militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia, a core Iranian rival where the Trump administration has deployed thousands of U.S. troops and military equipment in recent months, separately warned Sunday of a “heightened risk of missile and drone attacks” targeting Americans.
Similar threats are facing the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, where a series of rockets launched in Baghdad fell inside or near the city’s Green Zone late Saturday. The zone houses government offices and foreign embassies, including the American outpost, which had already been attacked by Iran-backed militants in the lead-up to the Soleimani strike.
The crisis between Tehran and Washington has been escalating since Mr. Trump pulled the United States out of the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran 17 months ago and began imposing fresh U.S. sanctions against Iran’s economy.
The agreement, also signed by Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, had eased international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for new limits on its nuclear activities.
In a joint statement Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on Iran to abide by the 2015 nuclear deal and refrain from further “violent acts.”
Prior to recent days, Mr. Pompeo and other top Trump advisers have said the goal of reimposed U.S. sanctions and increase of U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf was to pressure Iranian leaders into new negotiations and a more far-reaching accord than the nuclear accord.
But the rhetoric has taken a notably more aggressive turn in recent days.
In an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Pompeo sharply criticized past U.S. policy toward Iran, specifically that of the Obama administration, which he said engaged in “appeasement of Iran,” and other past administrations, which he said have fruitlessly focused on Iranian proxies rather than the theocratic Muslim regime in Tehran itself.
“Previous administrations had allowed Shia militias to take shots at us, and at best, we responded in theater, trying to challenge and attack everybody who was running around with an AK-47 or a piece of indirect artillery,” Mr. Pompeo said, asserting that the Trump administration has “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.”
In that context, Mr. Pompeo said that if the U.S. military were to strike inside Iran, in the event Tehran retaliated against America for the Soleimani killing, those strikes would be legal under the laws of armed conflict.
“We’ll behave inside the system,” he said. “We always have and we always will.”
The secretary of state was responding to a question about Mr. Trump’s assertion Saturday via Twitter that the United States has 52 Iranian targets in its sights, “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”
The tweet had triggered alarm, especially among Trump critics in Washington, who quickly went to social media to warn that such attack by the United States or any other national power would be a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural sites.
Mr. Pompeo stressed Sunday that, despite the loose language in Mr. Trump’s tweet, U.S. officials are looking only at “lawful” targets.
“I’ve seen what we are planning in terms of the target set,” he said. “I’m sure the Department of Defense is continuing to develop options. The American people should know that every target that we strike will be a lawful target, and it will be a target designed at the singular mission of protecting and defending America.”
“President Trump has been diligent about that. He doesn’t want war. He’s talked about this repeatedly,” the secretary of state added. “He is a reluctant participant in this, but he will never shy away from protecting America.”
But Mr. Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Sunday night that he’s serious about targeting Iranian cultural sites if Tehran carries out more attacks against the U.S.
“They’re allowed to kill our people,” the president said of Iran. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.”
Mr. Trump also claimed on Twitter that the 52 targets would be “representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago” when Iran invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran — the seizure of sovereign territory and an act of war — and held U.S. diplomats there for more than a year. That action just months after the current Islamist regime took power
In a tweet Sunday, Mr. Trump raised further eyebrows by saying that the U.S. would retaliate “perhaps in a disproportionate manner” against any Iranian actions.
The comments came as outrage mounted among Trump critics, who claim the administration is dangerously fomenting an unnecessary war with Iran, while Democrat lawmakers continue to question the extent to which Mr. trump may have exceeded his presidential authority by ordering the strike without first notifying Congress.
Mr. Trump officially notified Congress on Saturday of the Hellfire strike that killed Soleimani nearly two days earlier. While the notification technically checks off a key legal box pertaining to such strikes, it left Democrats with even more questions about the president’s motives.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the notification is classified, so the details can’t be made public. She called that a “highly unusual” move that shields an important conversation from public view.
“This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran,” the California Democrat said.
At the same time, demonstrators in dozens of cities around the U.S. gathered Saturday to protest the administration’s strike on Soleimani and its decision to send thousands of additional soldiers to the Middle East.
From Tampa to Philadelphia and San Francisco to New York, protesters carried signs and chanted anti-war slogans. In Miami, nearly 50 protesters gathered. Drivers heard people shouting, “No more drone murders,” “We want peace now” and “What do we want? Peace in Iran.”
A few hundred demonstrators gathered in Times Square on Saturday chanting “No justice, no peace, U.S. out of the Middle East!”
Organizers at some rallies claimed the administration has essentially started a war with Iran by assassinating Soleimani.
An entirely different sort demonstrations unfolded in Iraq and Iran over the weekend in honor of Soleimani — widely regarded as the architect of Iran’s regional policy of meddling in the affairs of other nations by mobilizing Shia militias across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
While some reports have noted that the Iranian military commander and U.S. officials had a shared enemy of ISIS in Syria and Iraq in recent years, Soleimani has long been blamed for attacks on U.S. troops and American allies going back decades.
Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets Sunday in Iran to walk alongside a casket carrying the remains of Soleimani, whose body was flown in after thousands had in Baghdad had also mourned him and others killed in Thursday’s strike.
An honor guard stood by early Sunday as mourners carried the flag-draped coffins of Soleimani and other Guard members off the tarmac in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz.
The caskets moved slowly through streets choked with mourners wearing black, beating their chests and carrying posters with Soleimani’s portrait. Demonstrators also carried red Shia flags, which traditionally symbolize both the spilled blood of someone unjustly killed and calls for their deaths to be avenged.
⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.