When top American military officials presented President Donald Trump with the option to kill Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, they didn’t actually think he would take it, reports the New York Times. Pentagon officials usually include a far-out option when they present possibilities to the president in order to make the others seem less extreme. The other options presented to Trump in Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach resort, included strikes against Iranian ships or missile facilities or militias backed by Iran that are operating in Iraq. “The Pentagon also tacked on the choice of targeting General Suleimani, mainly to make other options seem reasonable,” reports the Times.
At first, it seemed everything was going according to plan. Trump rejected the option to kill Soleimani to respond to a wave of recent Iranian-sponsored violence in Iraq. Instead, he authorized airstrikes against an Iranian-supported militia group, Kataib Hezbollah. The strikes ended up hitting three locations in Iraq and two in Syria.
Then things changed when protesters gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday. Iranians saw the U.S. response as disproportionate, but Trump became increasingly angry at the images he saw on television as protesters stormed the embassy. Suddenly, Trump was worried that failing to respond to the protests would look weak. By Thursday, Trump had decided to go forward with the killing of Soleimani, and “top Pentagon officials were stunned,” reports the Times. CNN also reports that “some officials emerged surprised” when the president decided to target Soleimani, as many expected he would go for a less risky option. There was immediate concern about what kind of retaliation that could spark from Iran, but it is unclear whether top military officials pushed back against Trump’s decision.
Although top U.S. national security officials continue to insist that the killing of Soleimani was in response to an imminent threat against Americans, there continues to be skepticism about that claim as the administration has failed to provide convincing evidence to make its case. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley also made clear that the attacks could still happen, meaning that killing Soleimani did not get rid of the supposed imminent threat. Several Democratic lawmakers have expressed skepticism at the president’s claims. “My staff was briefed by a number of people representing a variety of agencies in the United States government and they came away with no feeling that there was evidence of an imminent attack,” Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said.