The message the administration sent to Iran was crystal clear: 1) any attacks on Americans would elicit a military response; and 2) the United States would henceforth hold Iran responsible for the actions of its terrorist proxies. To underscore the message, Trump designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — including its Quds Force — as a foreign terrorist organization. This made Soleimani a legitimate military target.
For months, Iran danced around Trump’s new red line, carrying out increasingly bold attacks against U.S. targets, allies and interests — but assiduously avoiding U.S. casualties. First, it attacked Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers. Then, it shot down an unmanned U.S. drone (while avoiding a manned American P-8 aircraft that was reportedly flying in the area). Then, it attacked Saudi oil facilities.
In each case, the president demonstrated enormous restraint. He tightened economic sanctions on the regime in Tehran. He launched cyberattacks against Iran’s military capabilities. And he warned Iran that his patience was not without limits. “I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us but that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future,” Trump said.
Iran misread Trump’s restraint for weakness — and miscalculated. On Dec. 27, an Iranian proxy militia, Kataib Hezbollah, launched a rocket attack against a military base in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk that killed a U.S. military contractor and injured four U.S. servicemembers. With that attack, Iran crossed the red line Trump had set. Trump struck back militarily, hitting Kataib Hezbollah targets in Iraq and Syria — and U.S. officials began discussing a strike against Iran.
Meanwhile, Iran escalated further. Kataib Hezbollah overran and set fire to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, an attack a senior U.S. official told me was coordinated with Soleimani. U.S. officials watched as Soleimani flew into Baghdad to meet with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Kataib Hezbollah militia. According to the U.S. official, the United States had “exquisite intelligence” that the two men were planning an attack that could have killed hundreds of Americans.
Seizing that opportunity, Trump took them both out. His action was defensive, preemptive and lawful. Had Trump not acted and Americans had died, he would have been excoriated — and rightly so. Instead, he took bold action that disrupted that attack and took Soleimani and Muhandis off the battlefield.
But instead of praising Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused Trump of “engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions” and complained in a statement that he had done so without consulting Congress and “without an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iran.”
That is absurd. Trump did not need an AUMF. Soleimani and Muhandis were both designated as global terrorists. Muhandis was designated in 2009, and according to U.S. officials was responsible for smuggling armor-piercing IEDs from Iran into Iraq that killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers. Soleimani was his commander and the architect of virtually every major Iranian terrorist action for decades. They were in the midst of planning another attack, reportedly against the U.S. Embassy, which is sovereign U.S. territory. Trump does not need Congress’s permission to take military action to protect U.S. citizens from terrorists.
And Trump’s action was not “provocative.” He is not the one escalating; Iran has been escalating for months. And now, Iran needs to understand that if it escalates further in response to this defensive action, the United States has made clear what the next step will be. In public comments last summer, Pompeo said that if Iran killed Americans in Iraq, the U.S. “response likely would not take place in Iraq but would likely take place in Iran itself.”
Trump hit Soleimani in Iraq because he made the mistake of coming there to plan a terrorist attack. But if Iran miscalculates again, then the regime has been warned: Next time, the target will likely be Iran.