WASHINGTON (Dispatches) — Pentagon chief Mark Esper explicitly said Sunday that he had seen no hard evidence that four American embassies had been under possible threat when President Donald Trump authorized the targeting of Iran’s top commander.
As the administration struggled with its justification for the drone strike that martyred Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Esper and other officials tried to refocus attention on riots by several hundred people in Iran.
U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien suggested the United States sees the small riots as an opportunity to further intensify pressure on Iran.
Trump is under great pressure as he faces an expected impeachment trial in the Senate. Many in Congress also are upset over his handling of Iran, complaining that the administration did not consult them in advance of the Jan. 3 assassination, nor adequately brief members afterward. Trump complicated the debate by asserting on Fox News that he had to strike quickly because intelligence showed Iran could have attacked four American embassies.
But Esper, when asked whether there was a specific piece of evidence, replied: "I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies.″ And in response to a question about whether Trump was "embellishing″ the threat, Esper said, "I don’t believe so.”
After the U.S. assassinated Gen. Soleimani in Baghdad, tens of millions of Iranians took to the streets to vent their anger at Washington and call for revenge. The assassination of Gen. Soleimani along with Iraq’s top anti-terror commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis also intensified efforts by Iraqi politicians to expel American and other foreign forces.
Esper still justified the U.S. assassination as an act of self-defense, claiming the Pentagon foresees no more Iranian military attacks in retaliation for that. Even so, the head of the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah said Sunday that Iran’s missile attacks on two bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces last week were only the start of the retaliation.
Hassan Nasrallah described Iran’s military response as a "slap” at the U.S. He called it the "first step down a long path” that will ensure U.S. troops withdraw from the region.
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was concerned that "Iran has lots of ways that they can take action against us, both overt and covert, and I don’t think they’re done trying to seek revenge.″
Esper spoke hopefully of getting the NATO alliance more involved in Iraq. He said this could allow him to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq, currently numbering more than 5,200, but he did not say any reduction was in the works yet.
Esper was pressed to comment on Trump’s statement in a Fox News interview that the president believed Gen. Soleimani had been plotting to attack four U.S. embassies. While seeking to defend Trump’s remarks as representing the U.S. president’s personal belief,
not an assertion of a specific piece of hard intelligence that four embassies had been targeted, Esper indicated there was no such piece of evidence.
"I didn’t see one with regard to four embassies,” Esper said. "What I’m saying is I share the president’s view that probably — my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies. The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”
Intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive data collection, have said there was no single definitive piece of information about a coming attack, the New York Times reported.
On Thursday night, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while sticking by his description of an "imminent” attack, acknowledged that the information was not concrete. "We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” he said.
On Monday, NBC News reported that Trump had authorized Gen. Soleimani’s assassination seven months ago.
Citing five current and former senior administration officials, the broadcaster said former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton had urged Trump to sign off on an operation to assassinate Gen. Soleimani after Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June for violating its airspace.