Secretary of Defense Mark Esper holds an end of year press conference at the Pentagon on December 20, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia.

Drew Angerer | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Tuesday that before Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani was killed by a U.S. airstrike, attacks that Soleimani was planning against U.S. targets were only days away.

“I think it’s more fair to say days, for sure,” Esper said when asked if Soleimani’s purported attack plans — which the Trump administration says played a role in the decision to kill him — were expected to occur in days or weeks.

“He [Soleimani] was clearly on the battlefield, he was conducting and preparing, planning military operations, he was a legitimate target and his time was due,” Esper said, adding that what happens next will be dictated by Tehran.

Esper defended the “exquisite intelligence” the U.S. had gathered on Soleimani and reiterated that the Trump administration does not want to go to war with Iran.

“We are not looking to start a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one,” he said, adding that Washington wants to see the situation de-escalate.

Senators are reportedly set to be briefed on the airstrike by top administration officials on Wednesday. Some reports suggest that there is some dispute about whether the available intelligence clearly shows that Soleimani posed enough of an imminent threat to justify Trump’s drastic move.

After Esper spoke, President Donald Trump said at the White House that Soleimani was planning a big attack. He also told reporters in the Oval Office that a lot of lives were saved by killing Soleimani. The U.S., he said, is prepared for possible retaliation by Iran.

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Earlier in the day, the nation’s top diplomat said that the U.S. “got it right” by killing Soleimani.

“It was the right decision. We got it right. The Department of Defense did excellent work. And the president had an entirely legal, appropriate and a basis as well as a decision that fit perfectly within our strategy in how to counter the threat of malign activity from Iran more broadly,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo, speaking to reporters at the State Department, also maintained that the U.S. will act in accordance with international law, after Trump repeatedly said that the U.S. could threaten Iranian “cultural sites” — a possible war crime.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have mounted following Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration.

The 2015 nuclear agreement lifted sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy and cut its oil exports roughly in half. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran accepted limits on its nuclear program and allowed international inspectors into its facilities.

On Sunday, Iran announced it would not abide by any limits established in the 2015 nuclear deal on the number of uranium enrichment centrifuges. Therefore, Iran would have no limit on its enrichment capacity, the level to which uranium could be enriched, or Iran’s nuclear research and development. Iranian state-run broadcast said Tehran’s steps could be reversed if Washington lifted its sanctions.

In May, Iran stopped complying with some commitments in the 2015 nuclear deal after Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew from the agreement. Trump also reintroduced sanctions on Tehran that had been previously lifted in accordance with the nuclear deal.

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— Kevin Breuninger contributed to this report from CNBC’s global headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.