Donald Trump said the US did not want to “start a war” with Iran by assassinating Qassem Soleimani, a senior Iranian military commander, saying the killing he ordered was a pre-emptive strike to foil “imminent and sinister” attacks on US personnel.
In a brief statement to reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida on Florida, Mr Trump said the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, whose international force was led by Soleimani, had injured and murdered hundreds of Americans and plotted attacks against civilians around the world.
“His reign of terror is over,” Mr Trump said. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”
The assassination came days after the US embassy in Iraq was attacked by Iran-backed militia, and has reignited Middle East tensions and raised fears of a full-blown conflict.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has vowed to take “tough revenge” after the US killed Soleimani in a targeted air strike at Baghdad’s airport.
The US was due to send 3,000 to 3,500 additional troops to the region, with most of them expected to go to Kuwait, according to US officials. “Certainly we’re taking the Iranian threat of a possible response seriously and we are well positioned to defend US forces across the region,” a US official told the FT. The US is estimated to have 54,000 troops in the Middle East.
In his comments, Mr Trump said the US did not “seek regime change” in Tehran but Iran’s “aggression” in the Middle East, including the use of “proxy fighters” needed to “end and it must end now”. The US president said he was prepared to take “whatever action” was necessary with respect to Iran.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said on Friday he had spoken to counterparts in China, the UK, France and Germany to reiterate America’s “commitment to de-escalation”.
The strike on Soleimani was aimed at deterring Iranian aggression and “setting the conditions for de-escalation”, he later told Fox News.
“We don’t seek war with Iran, but we at the same time are not going to stand by and watch the Iranians escalate and continue to put American lives at risk without responding in a way that disrupts, defends, deters, and creates an opportunity to de-escalate the situation,” Mr Pompeo said.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, warned the US over what he called an “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation” in the tensions that have been building since Mr Trump entered the White House.
The death of the general — who controlled Tehran’s extensive influence across the Middle East from Lebanon to Iraq, Syria and Yemen through the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force — represents a ramping-up of the conflict between the US and Iran under the Trump administration. Diplomats have long feared that a miscalculation on either side could ignite a war in the region.
“It’s one of the most consequential assassinations in the Middle East in years,” said Aaron David Miller, a former state department official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The so-called shadow war will intensify with terror and additional assassinations.”
The attack, in which Iraqi militia leaders were also killed — including senior commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis — prompted calls for restraint from Europe and the Middle East. Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, said on Twitter: “Rational engagement requires a calm and unemotional approach.”
The Pentagon blamed Soleimani directly for “orchestrated attacks” on troops in Iraq over the last several months — including a Baghdad attack on December 27.
Mr Trump took a hard line against Iran when he campaigned for the presidency and in 2018 withdrew the US from a multilateral nuclear pact struck to encourage Tehran to limit its nuclear programme.
Since then, the US has imposed ever more stringent sanctions on the Islamic republic to bring “maximum pressure” on its oil-dependent economy. In June, Mr Trump came close to launching a military strike on facilities run by the Revolutionary Guard — which the US designated as a terrorist organisation in April — before reversing the order.
The tension had appeared to ease in recent weeks, but in December Washington blamed Iranian-backed militia for firing rockets at a base in Iraq that housed US troops, killing an American civilian contractor.
That death triggered air strikes against Kata’ib Hizbollah, a pro-Iranian Iraqi militia, killing 25 of its fighters, which in turn led to Tuesday’s retaliatory attack on the US embassy in Baghdad.
Iran’s regional rivals, in particular Saudi Arabia, have been on high alert since an attack on Saudi oilfields in September that was blamed on Iran, which caused the worst disruption to the kingdom’s oil industry in almost 90 years.
Tehran’s Supreme National Security Council, the regime’s top security body, said on Friday it had held an emergency meeting and made “the necessary decisions” without giving more details. Brig Gen Esmail Ghaani, a deputy to Soleimani, was appointed the new commander of the Quds force.
In the US, Democrats criticised Mr Trump’s actions. Joe Biden said the president had thrown “dynamite into a tinderbox” with the assassination. The air strike was a “hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region,” said Mr Biden, who is leading the Democratic nomination race to challenge Mr Trump in the November presidential election.
Oil prices jumped by more than 4 per cent on the reports to reach $69.16 a barrel, as traders bet the threat to supplies from the region had increased.
Helima Croft, a former CIA analyst who heads commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets,
said the strikes increased risks for US oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron that are active in Iraq, should Iran retaliate.
“But it is not just Iraq,” she said. “Iranians have the ability to target Americans anywhere where their proxy groups operate.”