WASHINGTON: The US military unsuccessfully tried to kill a senior Iranian military official in Yemen on the same day a drone strike killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, according to American officials.
The disclosure of a second mission indicated that the Trump administration had plans for a broader campaign than was previously known, intended to cripple Iran’s ability to carry out proxy wars in other countries. After Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes on Iraqi bases that host US troops, both Washington and Tehran appear to have stepped back from escalating the conflict further, at least for now.
The unsuccessful air strike in Yemen was aimed at Abdul Reza Shahlai, an official with Iran’s Quds Force, a potent paramilitary organisation that Soleimani had led. Shahlai was known as a main organiser of financing for Shiite militias in the region.
President Donald Trump approved the strike against Shahlai in the same period that he authorised the strike against Soleimani on January 3, although it was unclear if both attacks occurred concurrently.
Shahlai and Soleimani were two of several Iranian officials the administration targeted in an effort to halt Iran-backed attacks on sites with Americans and to deter Iran from ramping up aggression in the region, American officials said.
The United States had offered a $15 million (Dh55 million) reward for information about Shahlai. The announcement of the reward accused him of involvement in attacks on US allies, including a failed 2011 plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Shahlai was based in Yemen, where Iran is supporting the Houthi rebels, who are fighting a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and that gets logistical help, intelligence and weapons from the US military and US arms makers. The attempted strike on Shahlai was first reported by The Washington Post.
On Friday, Trump expanded his description of the threat from Iran that he said prompted the strike on Soleimani, saying Iran had planned to attack multiple embassies across the Middle East, including the US Embassy in Baghdad.
“I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” Trump told Laura Ingraham of Fox News. He provided no additional information.
But the new detail brought immediate criticism from Democrats, who have complained that the Trump administration has not shared specific, credible intelligence warning of an imminent attack.
“If there was evidence of imminent attacks on four embassies, the Administration would have said so at our Wednesday briefing,” Sen. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote on Twitter. “They didn’t. So either Fox News gets higher level briefings than Congress or there was no such imminent threat.”
Pompeo has said that Soleimani had been planning an “imminent attack” against Americans, although he also told Fox News on Thursday night that “we don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where.”
Speaking on Friday at the White House, Pompeo defended the credibility of the intelligence, saying that “we had specific information on an imminent threat.”
“And those threats included attacks on US embassies,” he added. “Period, full stop.”
Even so, Pompeo stopped short of repeating Trump’s comments about a specific plot against the American Embassy in Baghdad. But he also dismissed criticism from members of Congress that the administration had failed to share intelligence that backs up its case.
“I don’t know exactly which minute,” Pompeo said. “We don’t know exactly which day it would have been executed, but it was very clear: Qassem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests, and those attacks were imminent.”
Asked how he defined an imminent threat, Pompeo replied: “This was going to happen. And American lives were at risk.”
Last April, the Trump administration designated as a terrorist organisation Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a wing of the Iranian military. It was the first time the United States had used that label against a part of another government.
On Friday, Pompeo and the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, announced new sanctions on Iranian officials and on a few companies — including two in China — involved in the production and export of Iranian steel and other metals. The Trump administration had already imposed major sanctions on Iran’s metals industry after Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 from a landmark nuclear agreement with the country, so analysts said the new sanctions would have little additional effect.
The damage to Iran from the new sanctions will be negligible, said Peter Harrell, a sanctions expert at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington. “When it comes to putting materially more economic pressure on Iran, the Trump administration is something of a victim of its own success — and I think we are reaching the end of the road for what ‘maximum pressure’ can achieve when it comes to Iran’s economy,” Harrell said.