US officials are bracing for Iran to respond to the killing of its most powerful general, noting heightened military readiness in the country and preparing for a possible “tit-for-tat” attempt on the life of an American military commander.
President Donald Trump ordered last week’s strike against General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, after the death of an American contractor in Iraq.
Now, as the massive demonstrations of Iran’s public mourning period for General Soleimani come to a close, US officials believe the next steps by America’s longtime foe will determine the ultimate course of the latest crisis.
While officials say American intelligence isn’t clear on whether Iran’s latest military moves are designed to bolster Tehran’s defences or prepare for an offensive strike, the US is continuing to reinforce its own positions in the region, including repositioning some forces.
One official said the US anticipated a “major” attack of some type within the next day or two.
On Monday, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said no decision had
been made about withdrawing troops from Iraq. Pro-Iranian factions in the Iraqi Parliament have pushed to oust American troops following General Soleimani’s killing on Iraqi soil.
The US and Iran have careened from one flare-up to another since Mr Trump began his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran shortly after taking office. He abrogated the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed crushing economic sanctions, both steps aimed at preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and deterring the sort of regional aggression spearheaded by General Soleimani.
Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said targeting General Soleimani was not representative of a wholesale shift in American policy toward Iran, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments on Sunday that the US was targeting Iran’s “actual decision-makers” rather than its network of proxy allies.
Mr Trump has repeatedly contended he is not seeking “regime change” in Iran, a move promoted by some of his more hawkish advisers.
Still, Mr Trump’s strike against General Soleimani, a revered figure in Iran whose death sparked large displays of anger and grief, was a risky decision his Republican and Democratic predecessors opted not to take out of concern it would draw the US and Iran closer to conflict.
US officials are also aware Iran could try to strike a high-level American leader in a “tit-for-tat” move, potentially a military commander.
One official said some Iranian ships had spread out, and while the intent wasn’t immediately clear, they could move rapidly to attack.
The US military has increased protection of its forces, particularly in Iraq. Officials said a number of the recently deployed soldiers
from the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division had moved into Iraq from Kuwait in order to increase security for Americans there. The US military has stopped all training of Iraqi forces to focus on force protection, officials said.
As of Monday, officials said, there had not been a broadly distributed order or recommendation to increase security at military installations worldwide. Instead, decisions were being left up to the commanders.
The US military’s concern about its vulnerability to Iranian attack in the Persian Gulf region has been at a heightened state since about May, when the administration reported it was getting intelligence indications that Iran was planning attacks on US interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
The Pentagon sent additional forces to the Gulf at that point, and in July it worked out an arrangement with the government of Saudi Arabia to send US forces to a large base deep in the Saudi desert, in less obvious range of Iranian missiles.
The main hub for American military air operations throughout the Middle East is located at al-Udeid air base in Qatar – within easy range of Iranian missiles. American forces also are stationed in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. The Navy’s 5th Fleet, which operates throughout the region, is based at Bahrain.
Meanwhile in Washington, Democrats prepared largely symbolic resolutions under the War Powers Act to limit the president’s military actions regarding Iran.
In a letter to House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the air strike on General Soleimani “provocative and disproportionate” and said it had “endangered our service members, diplomats and others by risking a serious escalation of tensions with Iran”.
Congress, which has the sole power to declare war, has complained that Mr Trump did not provide advance notice of his air strike in Baghdad.
Mr Trump did meet the 48-hour deadline required by the War Powers Act to notify Congress after the deadly drone strike. The document was classified, and no public version was released.