Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday backed President Donald Trump’s strong threats to Iran as the US braces for potential retaliatory actions by the country following an attack last week by US forces that killed Iran’s top military leader.
“The American people should know that we will not waver. We will be bold in protecting American interests and we will do so in a way that is consistent with the rule of law,” Pompeo told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
He continued: “We’re trying to restore deterrence that frankly is a need that results directly from the fact that the previous administration left us in a terrible place with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran … we have developed a strategy to convince the Iranian regime to behave like a normal nation. That’s what our strategy is about. We’ve been executing it.”
The comments from Pompeo come amid increasing tensions between Tehran and Washington following a series of US attacks in the region, including one last week in Iraq that killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and several others. Though the President has claimed Soleimani was planning attacks on US forces and that the action was taken “to stop a war,” he vowed specific military action against Iran if it “strikes any Americans, or American assets.”
Trump, in a series of tweets Saturday, said the US has “targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago),” including cultural sites, which “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” if the country responds to the death of Soleimani with military force.
On Sunday, the military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader said his country’s response to the killing of Soleimani will certainly be a military response “against military sites.”
“Let me tell you one thing: Our leadership has officially announced that we have never been seeking war and we will not be seeking war,” Hossein Dehghan said in an exclusive interview with CNN.
“It was America that has started the war. Therefore, they should accept appropriate reactions to their actions. The only thing that can end this period of war is for the Americans to receive a blow that is equal to the blow they have inflicted. Afterward they should not seek a new cycle,” he said.
On Sunday, Pompeo also backed the Trump administration’s claim that it killed Soleimani in response to an impending threat to American lives, even as the lack of evidence provided to lawmakers and the public has fueled lingering skepticism about whether there was an “imminent threat” to justify the strike.
Asked about how “imminent” the attacks on Americans were, Pompeo replied: “If you’re an American in the region, days and weeks, this is not something that’s relevant. We have to prepare, we have to be ready, and we took a bad guy off the battlefield.”
He continued: “We made the right decision. There is less risk today to American forces in the region as a result of that attack.”
Later on the same program, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg each weighed in on the matter, with Warren arguing last week’s US strike has moved the US closer to war.
“The administration doesn’t seem to have a coherent answer for taking a step like that, and they’ve taken a step that moves us closer to war, a step that puts everyone at risk, a step that puts our military at risk, puts our diplomats in the region at risk,” Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, said.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told Tapper that “we need answers on whether this is part of a meaningful strategy, what choices were offered to the President and why he believed this is the best choice when we really haven’t seen the indication that it even served to prevent whatever attack they’re talking about.”
Threat against Iranian cultural sites
Trump’s threat on Saturday to strike Iranian cultural sites should the country respond to Soleimani’s death with military force has been met with criticism as it’s highly unusual for the US to target cultural rather than military sites, with some critics suggesting such action may violate international law.
Among those critics are Colin Kahl, former deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, who tweeted on Saturday that targeting such sites would be “a war crime” and that he finds it “hard to believe the Pentagon would provide Trump targeting options that include” them.
But Pompeo on Sunday defended Trump, arguing that such an action would not violate international law and instead suggested it would be a continuation of the administration’s attempt at deterrence and defense.
“If we need to defend American interests, we will do so. What President Trump said last night is consistent with what we have said all along,” he told Tapper.
“And the American people should know we will always defend them and we’ll do so in a way that is consistent with international rule of law and the American Constitution,” Pompeo said, insisting when facing pushback from Tapper that strikes against Iranian cultural sites and an action consistent with international law are “not two different things.”
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Fred Pleitgen, Schams Elwazer, Jeremy Diamond, Caroline Kelly and Greg Clary contributed to this report.