U.S.-Iran tensions
January 7, 2020

President Trump backed off his threats against Iran's cultural sites, albeit begrudgingly.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Trump said he likes to obey the law, and if international agreements forbid him from targeting protected heritage sites in Iran, he'll stick to them. The president sent a tweet over the weekend hinting that places of cultural importance to Iran were among potential retaliatory U.S. targets should Iran launch any sort of attack against U.S. interests in the wake of the death of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq last week. The threat led to intense backlash in Iran, the U.S. — even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it was "not appropriate" — and the rest of the world because protected sites are, well, protected and therefore off-limits, even in bellicose times.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to assure people over the weekend there was no way the U.S. would commit war crimes, and it looks like Trump has fallen in line — the president said he's "ok" with staying within the confines of international law. He did, however, complain about having to be "very gentle" with Iran's cultural institutions, despite Iranian violence. Tim O'Donnell

January 7, 2020

Assuming you're paying attention to the situation concerning Iran and the United States, you've probably seen a lot of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo these last few days.

He held a press conference Tuesday and did the media rounds Sunday, appearing on several news shows to discuss President Trump's decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike in Iraq. But some people are wondering where Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is in all this, considering the possibility of war drums beginning to bang has grown.

Indeed, Politico reports Pompeo's role as the spokesperson for the Soleimani strike has raised some eyebrows at the Pentagon. "The worry at the Pentagon is that [Esper] defers to Pompeo," Mark Perry, author of The Pentagon's Wars: The Military's Undeclared War Against American Presidents, told Politico.

Others in Washington's foreign policy establishment reportedly think Pompeo may even be auditioning to take over as Defense Secretary. But those in Esper's camp dismissed the concerns, noting that Esper is purposefully trying to remain behind-the-scenes and out of politics just like the Defense Department is supposed to do. Making media appearances, one Trump administration official said, is "the exact opposite" of what the Defense Department does. In turn, Pompeo, who is also closer to Trump, has become the front man.

"Isn't this more of a restoration of the way the system is supposed to work?" one former Pentagon official said, referring to Pompeo — the nation's top diplomat — remaining visible and vocal on international relations issues. Read more at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

January 7, 2020

The Trump administration has maintained they want to avoid a full-scale conflict with Iran, and supporters of President Trump's decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq last week have argued the airstrike was part of a larger strategy of deterrence.

Many folks are still on edge and worried Washington paved the way for further escalation, but a cable sent by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to U.S. diplomats reportedly shows the State Department is still open to solving the Iran crisis with words. In the cable, which was received by all U.S. missions, Pompeo ordered officials not to meet with Iranian opposition groups without permission since it could harm Washington's diplomatic efforts with Tehran, Bloomberg reports.

One of the groups on the to-avoid list is reportedly the MEK, which has paid people like Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former National Security Adviser John Bolton thousands of dollars for speaking engagements. Tim O'Donnell

January 7, 2020

The United States is far from the only foreign nation that will ultimately have a decision to make about its military forces stationed in Iraq. Several other countries with troops in the country are weighing their options in the wake of President Trump's decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike in Iraq last week, ratcheting up tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Canada, for one, is temporarily packing things and will wait nearby while things either boil over or cool down. In a letter, Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of Canada's Defence Staff, said troops will — for now — move from Iraq to Kuwait "to ensure their safety and security."

The United Kingdom, meanwhile, apparently wants to remain in Iraq, but will respect Baghdad's sovereignty if asked to leave. They've sent a team to help prepare for a possible evacuation. Other European countries have already begun to withdraw at least a small number of forces.

As for the U.S.'s closest ally in the Middle East? Israel is reportedly staying out of it for now, but some Israeli military experts worry that a possible American withdrawal from Iraq could eventually lead to a war along Israel's northern border. Tim O'Donnell

January 7, 2020

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kept some things hazy during a press conference detailing the Trump administration's decision-making regarding Iran.

When asked to provide an explanation for why Washington believed Tehran posed an "imminent threat" to U.S. security before President Trump ordered an airstrike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Pompeo said only that — as is the case in any situation like this — there were "multiple pieces of information" made available to the president.

Pompeo said all the relevant risks were weighed and Trump was provided with the best information in "broad detail" from the intelligence community and other teams "in the field," but didn't provide specifics about any new intelligence the administration may have received. Instead, he pointed to Soleimani's record of violence and destabilization in the region, as well as the recent strike that killed an American killed in Iraq last month, as reason enough to go through with the airstrike.

The secretary's comments, however, likely won't satisfy those who are questioning the timing of the decision. Tim O'Donnell

January 6, 2020

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday contradicted earlier statements made by President Trump, saying the United States military will not target cultural sites in Iran.

Amid mounting tensions with Tehran, Trump told reporters on Sunday that he was open to ordering airstrikes against the sites. On Monday, Esper conceded that hitting cultural sites that do not have any military value would be a war crime, saying, "We will follow the laws of armed conflict." There are 22 Iranian sites on UNESCO's World Heritage List, including the ruins of Persepolis and the remains of the kingdom of Elam.

Last week, Trump authorized an airstrike in Baghdad that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. In response, Iran promised to retaliate, and on Saturday, Trump said the United States picked out 52 potential targets in Iran should the country follow through on its threat. A Trump administration official told The New York Times none of those sites were cultural, but Trump went on to tweet that the sites were "very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture." Facing swift backlash to his comment, Trump doubled down.

During previous administrations, the U.S. was quick to criticize groups that destroyed antiquities, including the Taliban and the Islamic State, which caused extensive damage to historic sites in Iraq and Syria. Catherine Garcia

January 6, 2020

Addressing hundreds of thousands of mourners Monday in Tehran, the daughter of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani threatened an attack against U.S. service members.

Soleimani was killed last week in Baghdad after President Trump authorized an airstrike against him. Soleimani's daughter, Zeinab, told the mourners that "the families of U.S. soldiers in the Middle East will spend their days waiting for death of their children," a statement that elicited cheers from the crowd. She also told "crazy Trump" not to "think that everything is over with my father's martyrdom" because the United States will soon face a "dark day."

Iran has vowed to retaliate against the United States, and on Sunday, the country announced it will no longer abide by the uranium enrichment limits agreed upon under the 2015 nuclear deal. Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force, a paramilitary organization now overseen by Esmail Ghaani. In an interview with Iranian state television, Ghaani said God "has promised to get his revenge, and God is the main avenger. Certainly actions will be taken." He later said in return for Soleimani's "martyrdom we aim to get rid of America from the region."

On Sunday, a coffin containing Soleimani's remains was carried through the streets of Ahvaz and Mashhad, and on Monday, the coffin will make its way around Tehran and Qom. Soleimani was close to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who prayed over his casket on Monday morning and at one point openly wept. This is the first time Iran has honored one person with a multi-city funeral, The Associated Press reports. Catherine Garcia

January 6, 2020

Iraqi President Barham Salih is being candid about one of his biggest fears: that Iraq won't be able to "survive another conflict in the Middle East."

The New Yorker's Robin Wright interviewed Salih on Sunday, just days after President Trump authorized an airstrike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was targeted while in Baghdad, and the United States did not inform the Iraqi government of its plans. In the aftermath of the strike, the Iraqi parliament voted to compel the government to expel foreign troops from the country; there are more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Iran has also promised to retaliate against the U.S.

Iraq has seen its share of conflicts, including a war with Iran that lasted for eight years and achieved nothing. "Did this gain us any security?" Salih asked. "Did this bring us any stability? No. A lot of people were killed. A lot of people were maimed. A lot of resources were wasted and squandered." War should never be started "because you never know how it ends," he said, and Iraq "should never serve as a gate for others" or "fight a war, paid for by Iraqi resources and Iraqi lives, for others."

Should a conflict break out between the U.S. and Iran, it would likely "undermine the hard-won stability that we have achieved after years of conflict, and certainly after the last war against ISIS," Salih said. "If we are not careful, we may go beyond the brink, God help us all, in the neighborhood and internationally, as well." This would have "terrible consequences for Iran and the region at large," and countries in the Middle East should focus instead on creating job opportunities for youth and educational reforms, he added. Otherwise, young people could "fall prey to extremism and destabilize not only our societies but global security." Read the entire interview at The New Yorker. Catherine Garcia

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