The United States considered targeting Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani since at least July 2018, unnamed US officials have told The New York Times.
According to the newspaper, officials considered killing the senior Iranian general outside Iran, in Syria or Iraq, deeming that an attack against him in Iran itself would be too difficult to accomplish. The US effort reportedly included cultivating agents to report on Soleimani’s movements across the region.
Former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly formally presented the option of assassinating Soleimani and other Revolutionary Guard leaders in May, after the US deployment of a carrier strike group to the Middle East and a series of tanker sabotage attacks which Washington blamed on Tehran.
Officials told the NYT that US Central Command and Joint Special Operations Command began planning Soleimani’s assassination in September, discussing the option of killing the general in Syria or Iraq. Syria was reportedly seen as the ‘more complicated’ option amid fears that targeting Soleimani while he was among Hezbollah militia might lead to a war with Israel.
A memo signed by Trump National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien listing Soleimani as a target began to be circulated on December 31, the same day that Iraqi protesters attempted to seize the US Embassy in Baghdad in response to the December 27 US airstrikes on a government-allied Shia militia group.
That memo reportedly also included options to target an Iranian energy facility and a Revolutionary Guard coast guard command-and-control vessel. Along from Soleimani, O’Brien’s memo proposed targeting Abdul Reza Shahlai, a Quds Force commander near Sana’a, Yemen. The US moved forward with targeting Shahlai, but missed, a US official later told media.
No Proof of ‘Imminent’ Threat
In their comments to NYT, officials confirmed that there was ‘no single definitive piece of intelligence’ regarding Soleimani’s alleged plans to target America and American interests in Iraq. Instead, CIA officers claimed that Soleimani was planning to target US embassies and bases in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq using proxy forces. Officials also admitted there was no information that the threat was “imminent,” nor information on the possible number of casualties. This contradicts sentiments expressed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told reporters shortly after Soleimani’s killing that the Iranian commander posted an “imminent” threat to the US and its allies.
According to the officials, CIA director Gina Haspel actively supported the push to kill Soleimani, assuring that Iran’s response to the assassination would be measured and ineffective. Pentagon officials proved to be the most apprehensive, expressing ‘shock’ over Trump’s choice to select the most ‘extreme option’ in response to Iran’s alleged malign activities in Iraq.
After Soleimani’s death, Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi revealed to Iraqi lawmakers that Soleimani had been in Iraq on a peace mission brokered by Baghdad meant to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Mahdi said that Trump had thanked him personally for Baghdad’s peacemaking effort, giving Soleimani the impression that he would be safe in Iraq, all the while planning the Iranian commander’s killing.
Soleimani, 62, was killed on the morning of Friday, January 3 after the convoy he and a senior Iraqi Shia militia leader were traveling in was attacked by a US Reaper Drone at Baghdad International Airport. Soleimani’s Quds Force, an elite military formation responsible for Iran’s extraterritorial operations, has been involved in multiple anti-terrorist operations in the region over the years, targeting al-Qaeda* in Afghanistan and Syria, and participating in Syrian and Iraqi operations to defeat the Daesh (ISIS)* ‘caliphate’ between 2014-2017.
* Terrorist organisations outlawed in Russia and many other countries.