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Inside the Trump administration’s plan to kill Qassem Soleimani

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On Jan. 3, 2020, the Trump administration carried out a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport that killed Gen. Qassam Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander. Soleimani was said to be planning imminent attacks against American diplomats and military personnel. Past administrations had considered making this bold move, but decided against killing Soleimani because of the risks of escalation. Victoria Coates, then-deputy national security adviser for the Middle East, was one of several officials who spoke to Yahoo News about the Trump administration’s thought process behind the decision.

Video Transcript

DONALD TRUMP: Last night, at my direction, the United States military successfully executed a flawless precision strike that killed a number one terrorist anywhere in the world, Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.

VICTORIA COATES: At that point, when we got to the third, it-- in a curious way, it was like an election day. You had already done everything you could do, and it was in the hands of, obviously, the professionals who were going to execute the mission. There was confusion about his travel during the day, and various reports coming in about different itineraries he may take. At one point, we thought he wasn't going to Baghdad. Then he was.

And so that was really the lead-in to it. And that was probably the greatest source of tension before the strike. The president was, I believe, down in Mar-a-Lago. Secretary Pompeo was in Washington, as well, but was over at the Pentagon. We were in the situation room, my counterpart, Matt Pottinger, and I. Brian Hook was there, and a few other folks. And we had, obviously, audio and video links with our USG counterparts, and then in the region. And when we knew he was indeed heading for Baghdad, all we can do is wait and watch.

You know, it was an extraordinarily professionally executed maneuver. The truly kind of unusual aspect of it that most people probably wouldn't know about is then, once it's happened, you wait for people to figure it out. And so you start to hear, oh, there's been a strike in Baghdad, oh my goodness. So the day itself is perhaps not as dramatic as most may think. The planning and then the president's decision were, for the National Security Council staff, those were the momentous events.

It had been an ongoing discussion, you know, certainly over the summer, after the shipping attacks, and then after Abqaiq and the very, very strong concerns that the Saudis had about their security. And so we were both beefing up that relationship, but what we very much didn't want was another attack, because the interesting thing about the Abqaiq attack is it didn't work. What the Iranians wanted to achieve was a massive spike in oil prices, and that didn't happen. They were going to have to do something even more spectacular to get their desired result. And certainly, we were seeing them ramp up their attacks on US bases and interests in Iraq.

We had a contractor killed in December, which was a significant escalation. And some people like to kind of try to parse these things, oh, it was a contractor. I mean, it could be a US serviceperson. You know, they're not using precision missiles here. So they are clearly willing to kill American diplomats and soldiers.

And so, you know, just because they missed in that particular case doesn't mean the absolutely clear intent wasn't there. And so the question then becomes for the decisionmakers, do you wait until they actually kill one of our people, or do you say the intent is sufficient to take this kind of action. And it was the president's decision that the intent met the bill.

ADAM SCHIFF: Soleimani has been a risk to the United States for a long time. Soleimani has been engaged in deadly and malevolent action throughout the region for a long time. And the question is why the administration chose this moment, why this administration made the decision to remove him from the battlefield when other administrations of both parties decided that would escalate the risks, not reduce them.

VICTORIA COATES: There have been obviously a menu of options that are presented. Obviously, previous presidents had considered this action. Soleimani had a great deal of American blood on his hands, from Iraq and elsewhere. We knew he was plotting additional attacks. He was the mastermind of all of this.

And the president's decision was that this was, you know, in a single strike, the strongest message we could send. And that was his decision. Regionally, you know, when you take a significant action like this, there's likely to be a reaction. You know, surprisingly, there was very little. But obviously, being prepared for what Tehran might do was a major concern.

DONALD TRUMP: We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.

VICTORIA COATES: My feeling is, is that we're going to be blamed anyway, so we may as well get the credit. And you know, I think Iran has traditionally been something of a bully in the region. You know, they are-- they're happy to throw their weight around when there isn't much resistance, but if you push back on them hard, they tend to be a little bit more timid.

And so I think, ultimately, the president decided this was an extremely significant, serious action that he had decided to take, and he was not going to [INAUDIBLE] about it. He was just going to say this is what we've done, and this is why. It gave a great deal of clarity to the situation. It was an amazing and historic moment, and we definitely felt the gravity of it. It was not something to be taken in any way lightly, but it was, I think, really a turning point in the presidency, and one of the truly historic moments that I was privileged to witness.

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