The US Secretary of Defense said he “didn’t see” specific evidence that Iran was preparing to attack four US embassies in the Middle East before the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, as claimed by President Donald Trump.
The Trump administration has come under mounting pressure from Democrats and Republicans in recent days to set out the justification for its decision to kill the Iranian general, which triggered the current crisis between Washington and Tehran.
Members of Congress have accused the president of providing inadequate information about the threat that Soleimani posed to the US.
Mr Trump on Friday said Iran had been targeting four US embassies, including the one in Baghdad.
“I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies,” Mr Trump told Fox News. “Baghdad certainly would’ve been the lead. But I think it would’ve been four embassies that had been military bases, could’ve been a lot of other things too, but it was imminent. And then all of a sudden he was gone.”
Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, on Sunday said he did not see specific evidence “with regard to four embassies”.
“What I’m saying is I share the president’s view that probably, my expectation was they were going to go after our embassies,” Mr Esper told CBS News. “The embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country.”
When asked whether there had been an “imminent threat to US personnel and facilities” in the Middle East, Mr Esper said: “We had information that there was going to be an attack within a matter of days that would be broad in scale.”
Robert O’Brien, the US national security adviser, also defended the president on Sunday, telling NBC News: “We had exquisite intelligence and the intelligence showed that they were looking at US facilities throughout the region and that they wanted to inflict casualties on American soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, as well as diplomats. The threat was imminent. I saw the intelligence.”
Washington and Tehran have been locked in a stand-off since Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers, instead imposing swingeing sanctions on the Islamic republic.
The accord’s European signatories, Germany, France and the UK, said on Sunday that they remained committed to the agreement despite Iran’s announcement last week that it would no longer abide by any of its commitments on uranium enrichment.
Tehran started increasing its nuclear activity in May as US sanctions strangled its ability to export oil, the economy’s lifeline. But Iran’s decision, days after Soleimani’s killing, to end limits on the number of centrifuges used for enrichment raised speculation that the European powers would trigger the deal’s dispute mechanism, which could have led to the reimposition of UN sanctions.
Tehran says it is still committed to the accord, and crucially has continued to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, the watchdog, to monitor its nuclear activity.
Mr Esper and Mr O’Brien were the latest members of the Trump administration to face questions about the decision to kill Soleimani. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, came under pressure from reporters at the White House on Friday to explain the “imminent” nature of the threat that led to Soleimani’s killing.
“This was going to happen. American lives were at risk,” Mr Pompeo said, providing no further details.
Members of Congress have criticised the White House’s handling of the Iran crisis.
Trump administration officials last Wednesday met with members of Congress in a closed-door briefing. While some supporters of the president, such as South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham and Florida senator Marco Rubio, said they were satisfied by the information they had been given, Mike Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, criticised the president’s advisers, telling reporters the briefing was “probably the worst” he had received on a military issue during his nine-year congressional career.
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, said he “did not hear evidence of a specific imminent threat that would allow an attack without congressional authorisation. With consequences as serious as these, that is unacceptable.”
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday approved a resolution to limit Mr Trump’s ability to take military action in Iran without getting approval from Congress.