President Donald Trump’s top national security officials will brief the Senate on Wednesday to fend off criticism that his “defensive” decision to kill Iran’s top military commander has thrown America’s Middle East strategy into chaos and was based on presidential whim rather than compelling intelligence.
The Trump administration has justified the decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, seen by some as Iran’s second-most powerful figure, as a pre-emptive strike to prevent plots to kill hundreds of Americans across the region, but some lawmakers have expressed doubt it merited an assassination and fear that the decision risks ceding US influence in Iraq to Iran and puts the US on a path to full-blown war.
Overnight Iran launched missiles at US forces in Iraq in its first military retaliation for Soleimani’s death, prompting critics to accuse the president of stoking a regional conflict. Mr Trump, who tweeted “all is well” after consulting his top national security advisers at the White House, said the US was assessing casualties and damage, and that he would make a statement on Wednesday.
“The president must come to Congress and present clear and compelling intelligence as to why the strike against Soleimani was absolutely necessary,” Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, said in a speech on Tuesday. “What was the imminent threat that Soleimani uniquely possessed?”
After the overnight Iranian missile attacks, Mr Menendez, who was briefed by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, called for the US to pursue diplomatic channels and said Mr Trump must seek congressional authorisation if he intends further, extended military engagement. He wanted an account of the attacks in Wednesday’s briefing.
Senators are expecting defence secretary Mark Esper, top military commander Mark Milley, Mr Pompeo and CIA director Gina Haspel to give them a one-hour classified briefing on Wednesday afternoon on the triggers that led to the decision to strike Soleimani and its effect on US strategy in the Middle East.
They are likely to ask whether Soleimani himself was going to be involved in any expected attacks, how killing him would stop the attacks, whether any other commanders would have been involved in the plots and if they were still operational.
They are also likely to ask how the Trump administration can make a case that the action was taken to deter Iran, given there is a consensus view that Tehran would respond if only to save face.
The so-called Gang of Eight, a group comprising eight bipartisan lawmakers in the House and Senate who are eligible to access highly classified intelligence, received a briefing on Monday but none has commented in keeping with the terms of their access.
US media reports suggest Mr Trump decided to pick an unusually extreme option from those presented to him in retaliation for crossing what he saw as a humiliating red line — the death of an American contractor in Iraq by rocket fire on December 27 and televised attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad, both of which were blamed on Iranian forces.
Mr Esper insisted on Tuesday that the intelligence that led to the strike was “exquisite” and indicated attacks were forthcoming within “days” rather than weeks, but he acknowledged that it was only one factor among those behind the decision and that “a full panoply” of options had been available.
“The options we presented were all options we believed we could deliver on and would be effective,” he told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday, in comments that appeared to suggest Mr Trump had several other options besides striking Soleimani.
The White House has also considered downgrading the classification of intelligence in order to share it with allied foreign governments to better enable them to defend in public Mr Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani. It is also considering making public a sanitised version of the intelligence to help fend off further criticism.
Mr Menendez, among Democrats who take a hard line on Iran and who did not support the 2015 nuclear deal introduced by the Obama administration, said the fallout from the killing had backfired, giving Isis “a reprieve” as US troops face expulsion from Iraq — a life-long goal of Soleimani which may come to pass as the result of his death.
“Iran is today closer to a nuclear breakout than when President Trump took office, and we have isolated ourselves from the international alliance that we built to constrain Iran’s ambitions,” he said, adding US policy was now characterised by “confusion, contradiction, chaos”.