Pentagon Chief Kept Tight Circle on Suleimani Strike

Sources say senior officials who would normally be consulted were left out of the loop.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley hold an end of year press conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Dec. 20, 2019. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the hours leading up to the U.S. drone strike that killed Qassem Suleimani this past week, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper kept President Donald Trump’s decision to target the commander of Iran’s powerful Quds Force closely held, cutting out some senior Pentagon leaders who are typically consulted on decisions of such magnitude.

Senior officials at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff would ordinarily be part of the discussion, or at least briefed ahead of time, on such a momentous decision—one that the administrations of both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama considered and rejected. But in this case, many senior leaders found out after the fact, current and former officials familiar with the discussions told Foreign Policy.

“The usual approval process, the decision-making process, did not occur,” said one defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

Even among the small group of officials who were in the loop, there was dissent about whether killing Suleimani was a wise decision, said a former senior administration official with knowledge of the discussions. “The DoD was not all in agreement that killing the second most popular person in Iran at an international airport in Iraq was a good idea,” the former official said.

The death of Suleimani, a widely popular figure in Iran and mastermind of Tehran’s regional security strategy, in a strike that also killed the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, has caused tensions in the Middle East to soar, raising fears of an all-out war. On Saturday, tens of thousands of pro-Iranian fighters marched through Baghdad calling for revenge on the United States, and two rocket attacks occurred near Iraqi bases that host American troops, although no one was injured.    

On Sunday, Iraq’s parliament voted to expel the U.S. military from the country, and reports emerged that the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition announced a pause in operations so it can protect Iraqi bases where U.S. troops are located.

“The region if possible has just become more complicated,” said retired Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command until early 2019. “There will be consequences that now can’t be determined.” 

Some defense officials say Esper’s decision to keep the decision to strike closely held was understandable. “The people who needed to be in the room were in the room,” said a second defense official. “The voices that needed to be heard from were heard from.” 

The first defense official posited that Esper is keeping a tighter circle of trust, particularly after a Wall Street Journal article last month said that the United States was considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East to deter Iran—a report Esper vehemently denied.

The second defense official disputed that characterization. “The publishing of a fabricated story by the WSJ had no impact on the decision making process of the Secretary of Defense—it’s silly to suggest so,” the official said.

The administration on Friday defended the decision, saying Trump ordered the strikes in order to disrupt imminent attacks Suleimani had been planning on American service members in the Middle East. Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security advisor, told reporters that the action was authorized under the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force and consistent with the president’s “constitutional authority as commander in chief to defend our nation.” Democratic legislators including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disputed that interpretation.

Following the strike, Esper ordered some 3,500 soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division to the Middle East to protect U.S. interests, in one of the largest rapid deployments in decades.

Senior members of the Defense and State departments, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, briefed staff members from the House Armed Services Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday about recent threats and attacks on U.S. personnel and interests in Iraq. 

But publicly, senior leaders have provided few details on the planned attacks since news of the strike emerged. State and Defense officials disagreed on how “imminent” the attacks really were, the former senior official said.

Some officials argued that there were other actions that were not so “escalatory” and that killing Suleimani in Iraq “was only going to cause us more problems than it is worth,” the former official said.

The knock-on effects became clearer on Friday, with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei calling for “forceful revenge” for Suleimani’s death. On Saturday, Trump hit back, vowing to strike 52 sites across Iran—representing the number of U.S. hostages taken by Tehran in 1979—if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets.

“[T]hose targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!” Trump tweeted. 

Suleimani has a long history of attacking U.S. service members and is responsible for the deaths of at least 600 Americans in Iraq alone, current and former officials say. O’Brien on Friday also cited Suleimani’s support for President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria and violent repressing of recent protests in Iran.

The most notable example of Suleimani’s malign activities in recent weeks was the Dec. 27, 2019, attack on the K1 Air Base that killed one American contractor and injured four U.S. service members, O’Brien said.

“This was something that the president felt was necessary to do,” O’Brien said, defending the decision to kill Suleimani. “This was designed to prevent further bloodshed. This was a defensive action.” 

The administration has offered to sit down with Iranian officials to discuss a peaceful resolution. But so far, Tehran has declined to negotiate without the lifting of harsh U.S. sanctions. Officials are likely hoping that the strike on Suleimani will bring Tehran to the negotiating table in order to avoid an all-out war.

“Eventually we are going to run out of escalation room,” said retired Vice Adm. John Miller, a former commander of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Arabian Sea. “At the end of the day certainly a full on conflict in the region would not be good for the region [and] would also be devastating for Iran. It’s important that they do the math and understand that.”

But so far, there are few signs Tehran will take Trump up on his offer. On Sunday, Hossein Dehghan, the military adviser to the supreme leader, told CNN that Iran’s response will certainly be a military response “against military sites.”

“We don’t fully understand their red lines and they don’t fully understand ours,” Miller said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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