Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provided a full-throated defense Tuesday of the U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian military leader. That killing last week has ratcheted up tensions between Tehran and Washington, prompting vows of retaliatory strikes.
“It was the right decision. We got it right,” Pompeo told reporters during a briefing at the State Department. He added that the strike “fit perfectly within our strategy in how to counter the threat of malign activity from Iran more broadly.”
Pompeo’s remarks come days after President Trump ordered the attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the top commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in Baghdad on Friday.
Pompeo was also asked about Trump’s controversial threat to strike 52 sites inside Iran, including cultural ones, if Iran carries out retaliatory attacks.
“Every target that’s being reviewed, every effort that’s being made, will always be conducted inside the international laws of war,” Pompeo said.
Trump told reporters on Sunday, “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people.”
The president continued: “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.”
As NPR reported on Monday, the U.S. cannot legally target cultural sites, according to the Hague Convention the country signed in 1954, which mandates “refraining from any act of hostility” directed against cultural property.
Pompeo was also pressed on how the administration determined Soleimani was planning an imminent attack on the U.S., a key justification for the drone strike.
In response, Pompeo ticked off a series of events — calling them Soleimani’s “handiwork” — including a rocket attack that led to the death of an American civilian contractor in Iraq in December.
“If you’re looking for imminence, you need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo referred to what he called Soleimani’s “continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead, potentially, to the death of many more Americans.”
He did not provide details to support his assertion about any looming attacks.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told NPR in an interview Tuesday that the U.S. “will pay” for the assassination of Soleimani as well as Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Zarif called the drone strike an act of “both terrorism and war.”
In that same interview, Zarif told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly in Tehran that the U.S. failed to issue him a visa so he could attend a gathering of the U.N. Security Council in New York.
Pompeo was asked about that during his remarks but said he would not comment on visa matters. The secretary of state did seek to pour cold water on Zarif’s claim that at the time of his death, Soleimani was traveling to Baghdad on a diplomatic mission.
“Anybody here believe that?” Pompeo asked sarcastically.
“Zarif is a propagandist of the first order,” he added. “It’s not new, we’ve heard these same lies before. It’s fundamentally false.”
Pompeo’s remarks come a day before a scheduled closed-door briefing on Iran that he and other top administration officials are slated to give to lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
He is expected to be joined by CIA Director Gina Haspel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. The session comes as House Democrats are mulling ways to limit the president’s authority to order military action in Iran unilaterally.
At Tuesday’s briefing, Pompeo was also asked about his decision to stay on as secretary of state instead of leaving his post, as he was widely expected to, in order to pursue an open Senate seat in Kansas.
“No real news there. I’ve said that I’m going to stay serving as secretary of state so long as President Trump shall have me,” Pompeo said.
He added: “You can accuse me of being inconsistent elsewise, but not on that one.”