Washington Braces for Fallout from Operation That Killed Qassem Soleimani

President Donald Trump caused US-Iranian relations to plummet to historic lows this week when he ordered the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. The ramifications of the operation likely will not be fully realized for some time, but officials in Washington have scrambled to make sense of what was essentially the extrajudicial killing of a member of a sovereign nation’s state apparatus.

The Trump Administration, for its part, has worked to garner support for the strike from both domestic and international audiences. Meanwhile, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called on the administration to provide more information on the justification for assassinating Soleimani.

Trump Team Tries to Rally Support, Reassure Skeptics

Even before a January 2 military strike killed Iran’s Soleimani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was making phone calls to Middle East leaders. After Iraq’s Kataeb Hezbollah supporters and their allies stormed the US embassy in Baghdad, Pompeo immediately spoke with key regional allies to discuss the developments. Pompeo communicated with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu twice (on December 30 and January 1), Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, President Barham Saleh, and Speaker of Iraq’s Council of Representatives Mohammed al-Halbousi, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres. In hindsight, the fact that Pompeo made multiple phone calls to Israel—which itself has reportedly taken actions on Iranian-linked targets within Iraq’s borders—lends credence to the idea that Washington coordinated with Israel as it developed the plan to assassinate Soleimani.

After the United States deployed the drone strike that killed Soleimani and the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Pompeo immediately began making phone calls to officials of all the aforementioned countries as well as to others in the international community. He spoke with officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (see here and here), Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq’s central government (here and here) and its semi-autonomous Kurdish government (here and here), Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations. The support-rallying efforts may not have been successful though, with Pompeo himself remarking that partners in Europe have been less than eager to support the administration’s recent actions. And in a sign of changing attitudes in the Arabian Gulf, Saudi Arabia dispatched its deputy defense minister to Washington for what appears to be an effort to de-escalate the situation in the region. Saudi Arabia has come to the realization that it stands to lose much more than the United States in any war between Washington and Tehran, and it now appears that Riyadh and its allies in Abu Dhabi are urging restraint.

At home, the Trump Administration has been trying to justify to the public the decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani as well as quell concerns about the risks of current tensions escalating into a full-blown war with Iran. Several officials, including the secretaries of state and defense, have gone before the press to assure the American people that the assassination was done to ensure the safety and security of Americans and that this highly provocative operation was, actually, an effort by the United States to de-escalate tensions with Tehran. President Trump himself held a televised address on January 8 to talk about recent developments in the wake of Iranian missile attacks on Iraqi military bases housing US troops. Ultimately, the president said the administration would levy additional sanctions on Iran, but he largely avoided any talk of escalation or military retaliation.

It would behoove the public to consider the administration’s talking points critically. Though officials have repeatedly stated that Soleimani was planning “imminent” attacks, they have done little to clarify what new threats he posed on January 2. Furthermore, Secretary Pompeo repeatedly muddied the understanding of the “imminent” danger of such attacks by citing Soleimani’s previous actions against the United States. It is one thing to parse administration talking points to get a sense of direction, but as the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words. If Soleimani’s death were truly intended to protect US personnel in the region, it is ironic that the Pentagon decided it now has to station thousands more troops in the region to bolster security. The State Department also explicitly warned Americans about threats to their safety throughout the region, including Iraq, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Capitol Hill Split on Trump’s Posture Toward Tehran

Directly following the administration’s confirmation that it assassinated Soleimani, lawmakers issued numerous statements either in support of the operation or with more reservations about the administration’s controversial action. Most Republicans were supportive, if not enthusiastic, about the strike, while nearly every Democrat expressed concerns regarding the process by which the decision was made and what the administration planned to do next.

Democrats, for their part, were worried that the assassination would lead to tit-for-tat retaliations that would eventually find Washington enmeshed in another disastrous conflict in the Middle East. Progressives especially decried the current state of affairs because they had lobbied for language in the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that would have prohibited the administration from taking actions like the Soleimani operation. But, caving to Republican pressure, House leadership agreed to strip the language from the bill.

Congress will move forward now on multiple tracks to try and reassert itself in the war-making process. Immediately after the attack, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) called on the administration to provide Congress with a briefing on the Soleimani operation. Some members of Congress received early briefings on the administration’s intelligence about Soleimani, but a more thorough briefing was expected January 8. Secretaries Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper are expected to attend alongside Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has also stated that his office is working with the Pentagon to set up a full Senate briefing on the matter, and Senators Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) have called on the administration to declassify the intelligence behind the Soleimani operation.

Democrats especially have made it a point to reclaim some of the White House’s war powers. Members of the House and Senate introduced joint resolutions under the War Powers Act to force a withdrawal of the US military from hostilities with Iran. Speaker Pelosi already intends to vote on the measure, where it will likely pass the House, but there are no indications that there is any appetite among Republicans in the Senate to vote to limit President Trump’s ability to strike Iran. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) also introduced the No War With Iran Act, which will have a counterpart in the Senate introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). This bill would prohibit any war with Iran and would prevent the government from spending federal monies on such an effort. However, like the War Powers Resolution, it is nearly impossible to think of a scenario where enough Republicans agree to a measure of this nature.

Lastly, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced a nonbinding concurrent resolution “expressing the sense of Congress that attacks on cultural sites are war crimes.” This was prompted by President Trump’s apparent willingness and desire to bomb cultural locations in Iran should further fighting break out. However, even this seems to prove controversial among at least one Republican in the Senate. Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) blocked Markey’s unanimous consent agreement to pass the resolution, saying “it’s simply not true that attacking cultural sites is always a war crime because there are many instances in which cultural sites have been used as staging grounds for hostilities.”

As the latter example illustrates, Congress will have a difficult, if not impossible, journey ahead to retake some of the war-making authorities that it has ceded over the decades. Due to the partisan split on the issues, it is unlikely that anything meaningful can be done at this juncture to stop further escalation between Washington and Tehran.

I. Congress

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Barred from Traveling to Syria, Iraq. Even before the recent uptick in violence and unpredictability in Baghdad, the Pentagon had decided to rule out all congressional delegation (CODEL) travel to Iraq and neighboring Syria. According to a report, the Department of Defense has restricted CODELs from traveling to either country, though lawmakers said there was not a specific reason given for the prohibition. A bipartisan delegation went to the region during Christmas week, but due to the Pentagon’s decision, members were not able to visit military personnel in Syria or Iraq. The group traveled to Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, however.

Senator Murphy Criticizes Trump’s Call with Erdoğan. President Trump recently spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regarding the increasingly perilous situation in Libya. This comes after Turkey’s parliament voted to deploy troops to Libya in support of General Khalifa Haftar. According to the White House, President Trump told Erdoğan “that foreign interference is complicating the situation in Libya.” Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), who has emerged as one of the Democratic Party’s foremost voices on foreign policy, released a statement criticizing President Trump’s broader policies toward both Turkey and Libya. Murphy argued that Trump’s past interactions with President Erdoğan sowed the seeds for Ankara to disregard Washington’s concerns. Further, the senator predicted that Turkey would once again ignore the United States as it increases its involvement in the fighting in Libya.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Middle East Peace Envoy Travels to Israel to Discuss “Peace Plan.” This week, Avi Berkowitz, the White House’s new envoy for Middle East peace who succeeded Jason Greenblatt, traveled to Israel to discuss a potential launch of the administration’s ideas for securing peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Berkowitz met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rival Benny Gantz. Despite another round of Israeli elections, the Trump Administration is reportedly considering unveiling its so-called peace plan.

2) Department of State

State Decries ICC Investigation Into Israeli Human Rights Abuses, Touts Successes in Region. The State Department went on the record two separate times this week to express its position on regional developments. First, Secretary Pompeo released a statement decrying the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision to “unfairly target Israel” by asking judges to confirm that the ICC has jurisdiction over the occupied Palestinian territories. After finishing a preliminary review, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda found that there is a reasonable basis for pursuing an investigation into possible war crimes in Palestine.

While the secretary was pillorying the idea of outside actors dictating terms for the region, the State Department held a press conference with journalists to offer background information and elevate the administration’s own designs for countries throughout the region. Billed as a presser to discuss the Trump Administration’s 2019 “successes” in the region, it soon became clear that Foggy Bottom has expectations for how states in the region should operate and that it intends to bring pressure to bear on those that do not agree with Washington.

State Labels PMU Elements as Terrorist Organizations. Following the flare-up in Iraq, the State Department announced that it would be designating Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and its leaders as “specially designated global terrorists.” Because the department has deemed the group “violent proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” its members and leaders will be barred from traveling to the United States and any assets these individuals have in US jurisdiction will be frozen.

TPS Extended 18 Months for Yemenis. This week the Trump Administration agreed to extend the temporary protected status (TPS) of roughly 1,250 Yemenis in the United States for another 18 months. The extension will provide some temporary relief for the Yemeni individuals who cannot realistically return home, but ultimately, their legal status will be in limbo again in over a year unless the administration re-designates Yemen as a country that warrants TPS.

3) Department of Defense

Administration Gives Convoluted Explanation about Whether Troops Will Leave Iraq. The Iraqi parliament voted this week on a nonbinding resolution calling on the central government to revoke its agreement with the United States, which allows for thousands of military personnel to be based in the country. Afterward, an unsigned letter from US Joint Command was delivered to a member of Iraq’s ministry of defense to announce that the Pentagon would be preparing a withdrawal from the country. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley both told the press that the letter was sent by mistake and did not signal Washington’s intention to exit Iraq.

However, Iraq’s prime minister said that his office received the letter and understood it as the United States’ official declaration of its intent to leave. This will prove problematic moving forward, as Iraq’s parliament already wants to expel US troops and the Department of Defense is already reportedly concerned that expulsion plans will come to fruition.

4) Department of the Treasury

Administration Officials Reportedly Crafting Iraq Sanctions. After Iraq’s elected lawmakers expressed their desires to boot the US military from the country, President Trump made off-handed remarks about sanctioning Baghdad to compensate for the loss of the US air base. Despite the fact that none of the president’s remarks are quite accurate—a country does not “charge” other countries sanctions—administration officials have reportedly begun crafting sanctions packages that could potentially apply to Iraq if it moved to expel US troops.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here