Pompeo Warns Iran That U.S. Could Attack if Tehran Retaliates

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran on Sunday that the United States could attack the country within its borders if leaders there take hostile actions against American interests in the aftermath of the drone strike that killed a top general.

“I’ve been part of the discussion and planning process — everything I’ve seen about how we will respond with great force and great vigor if the Iranian leadership makes a bad decision,” Mr. Pompeo said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We hope that they won’t, but when they do, America will respond.”

“We will be bold in protecting American interests, and we’ll do so in a way that’s consistent with the rule of law,” he added.

In appearances on five television news shows on Sunday morning, Mr. Pompeo underscored President Trump’s message the previous day that the United States had chosen sites to attack within Iran if Tehran ordered assaults on American assets or citizens in retaliation for the drone strike in Baghdad that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.

Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that the United States had picked 52 sites, “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” that “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

The targeting of cultural sites is against international law, and critics denounced Mr. Trump for his statement.

The comments by Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo on potential American attacks on Iran are certain to increase tensions with Congress, where Democrats and some Republicans say the Trump administration has no authorization to enter into war with Iran.

Lawmakers have criticized Mr. Trump for not telling them in advance of the strike on General Suleimani. Among those attacking Mr. Trump’s actions is a Republican, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who wrote on Twitter that the main question “is whether the assassination of Soleimani will expand the war to endanger the lives of every American soldier or diplomat in the Middle East?”

When asked Sunday by several interviewers whether the United States would attack cultural sites, Mr. Pompeo avoided answering directly. He said on ABC’s “This Week” that the United States would “behave lawfully” and “behave inside the system.”

Mr. Pompeo made his statements as Iraq’s Parliament voted to expel more than 5,000 American troops from Iraq. The United States military has been fighting the Islamic State, a Sunni militant group that seized enormous swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 but is now transforming into an insurgency after years of military defeats.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq, a Shiite leader who has ties to Tehran, has criticized the presence of American troops following the strike on General Suleimani, though he has not yet signed Parliament’s bill.

American military officials said Sunday that they were suspending operations against the Islamic State as American forces braced for retaliation by Iran and its partners.

Asked about the Iraqi Parliament’s vote, Mr. Pompeo said on the CBS program “Face the Nation” that the United States would continue to battle the Islamic State. “It is the United States that is prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve and continue our mission there to take down terrorism from ISIS and others in the region,” he said.

In Tehran, the country’s national security council end its commitments to limits on uranium enrichment in a nuclear deal that Iran reached in 2015 with the United States, China, Russia and three Western European nations. Mr. Trump withdrew from the agreement in May 2018 and reimposed major sanctions on Iran, starting Washington and Tehran on the current path of confrontation.

The other nations in the deal had tried to urge Iran to adhere to the agreement, as it had been doing until the recent cycles of escalation. After Mr. Trump reimposed sanctions, Iran began breaching certain limits on nuclear activities.

Mr. Pompeo told CNN that “this war kicked off” when the Obama administration entered into the nuclear agreement. Even when Tehran had been abiding by the terms of the deal, Mr. Pompeo said, the agreement gave Iran “free rein” to expand its regional activities.

Former Obama administration officials who worked on Middle East issues said the actions of Mr. Trump and his aides had resulted in greater dangers to the United States and American citizens.

“The vote in Iraq to seek full U.S. withdrawal is just the beginning of the predictable consequences of Trump’s reckless escalation with Iran,” said Jeffrey Prescott, senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf States on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “We should expect to see Iran accelerate its nuclear program as well.

“The bottom line is this: Trump and Pompeo promised that pulling out of the Iran deal and imposing ‘maximum pressure’ would get us new negotiations, a ‘better deal,’ further limits on Iran’s nuclear program, and deter Iran’s regional aggression,” he added. “Nothing of the sort has happened.”

Analysts of Iran and American policy said the killing of General Suleimani and other actions by the Trump administration appeared to be taking place in the absence of any larger strategy.

“This strike has not changed the problem that the United States still has no clear strategy toward Iran,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, an Iran expert at the RAND Corporation, a research group that often advises the American government. “What do we want to accomplish? If the goal of maximum pressure was to create better Iranian behavior or a better nuclear deal, it’s hard to see how this strike advances either objective.”

John Gans, a former Defense Department speechwriter and author of a new book on the National Security Council, said Mr. Trump’s aggressive tweets on Iran “make Pompeo’s job — marshaling diplomatic support and mitigating opposition — much harder and will only inspire congressional opposition and action.”

Iranian officials reacted forcefully to Mr. Trump’s tweet on Saturday about targeting 52 sites in their country. The head of the Parliament’s national security committee, Mojtaba Zolnour, said that if the United States attacked 52 places — a number Mr. Trump has said is based on the number of American hostages taken by Iranians in 1979 — Iran would retaliate and attack as many places as there are Quranic verses.

Hossein Dehghan, military adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, told CNN that Iran’s response “will be military and attack U.S. military targets.”

Mr. Trump’s tweet has become a unifying call among many Iranians. They are sharing it widely across social media networks and phone applications with the message, “Attend the funeral for our cultural heritage.”

Mr. Pompeo did not give any new details on Sunday of what he and other aides to Mr. Trump have said was intelligence showing “imminent attacks” that General Suleimani had been planning on American interests in the Middle East. Some Pentagon officials have said there was no intelligence on Iran that was different than the ordinary stream of risk alerts.

When Congress starts its new session this coming week, lawmakers are certain to press Mr. Trump, Mr. Pompeo and other senior officials on the intelligence and on war authorization for any future military strikes against Iran.

Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan and a former C.I.A. analyst and Pentagon official who worked in Iraq, said Friday that the administration must brief Congress as soon as possible and ask for congressional war authorization if it intended to carry out protracted actions.

“Congress needs to understand the administration’s plan as soon as possible,” she said.

The executive branch has an open-ended war authorization given by Congress in 2001 to go after Al Qaeda and partner groups in retaliation for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Last year, some members of Congress and aides said senior administration officials appeared to be making an implicit case in briefings with Congress that the 2001 authorization could encompass Iran; the officials’ argument was that Iran has had ties to Al Qaeda and Taliban figures. Vice President Mike Pence wrote a tweet on Friday with falsehoods linking Iran to Al Qaeda.

On Friday, Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, said the strike on Mr. Suleimani had been legally permitted under a 2002 authorization from Congress that allowed President George W. Bush to wage war on Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi nation.

Chris Cameron contributed reporting from Washington and Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

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