WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday defended the Trump administration's decision to kill a top Iranian general in an airstrike last week, arguing that America "would have been culpably negligent" if it hadn't launched the attack.
In interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Pompeo blamed Gen. Qassem Soleimani for a recent rocket attack that killed a U.S. contractor in Iraq and connected him to previous attacks on Americans.
Pompeo also said the administration was prepared for any Iranian counterattack.
"It may be that there's a little noise here in the interim, that the Iranians make a choice to respond," he said. "I hope that they don't. President Trump has made clear what we will do in response if they do, that our response will be decisive and vigorous, just as it has been so far."
He said that "the risk of doing nothing exceeded the risk of taking the action that we took" and that he was "100 percent" certain that America was safer because of the strike.
"There were, in fact, plots that he was working on that were aimed directly at significant harm to American interests throughout the region," Pompeo said. "We would have been culpably negligent had we not taken this action. The American people would've said we were not doing the right thing to protect American lives."
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Soleimani commanded the secretive Quds Force, a part of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, and was considered one of the regime's top military leaders.
U.S. officials have said he was targeted because he was planning attacks against the United States in the Middle East. But tensions had already been rising in the region before the strike.
In the days before the operation, a rocket attack killed a U.S. contractor at an Iraqi military base, U.S. airstrikes hit weapons depots in Iraq and Syria, and violent protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad.
Democrats have raised concerns about the action. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., warned that the strike "risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence" and argued that it was ordered both without any say from Congress and without an "authorization for use of military force."
Iran has threatened retaliation, with President Hassan Rouhani tweeting that "the great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime."
President Donald Trump warned Saturday on Twitter that "if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture."
In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the suggestion that the U.S. military would target cultural sites a "war crime" in his own Twitter response, an allegation that Pompeo addressed Sunday.
"The American people should know that we have prepared for this, that we are ready, that our responses are lawful, and that the president will take every action necessary to respond should Iran decide to escalate," he said.
"We've communicated clearly, crisply to them with respect to what it is we have as an expectation. And we have communicated clearly and crisply what we will do in response if they choose another path," he said. "We hope that they will not, but we are prepared in the event that they choose to do so."
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said on "Meet the Press" that while Soleimani represented a "real threat," he hadn't heard yet from the Trump administration about how it was "thinking through" the consequences of the strike.
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"I know the secretary of state is trying, in his own words, to de-escalate. I'm not sure the president, by his kind of taunting tweets, is necessarily trying to de-escalate," he said.
"I'm not sure how we will be seen as both stronger and smarter if we have our Iraqi allies asking us to leave, if our NATO allies don't feel like they're going to be informed before we take this kind of action, and, frankly, if the people in the region who were against the Iranian regime, all across America, are now rallying against America," Warner said.