Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani was caught “red-handed” plotting in Baghdad with another terrorist leader just before the U.S. launched the drone strike that killed him.
“The fact of the matter is, Soleimani was caught red-handed on the ground in Baghdad, one terrorist leader of a terrorist organization meeting with another terrorist leader to synchronize and plan additional attacks on American forces, diplomats and facilities,” he said on CNN.
When pressed on the immediacy of the threat, Esper said that he thinks the attack would have happened in “a matter of days, certainly no more than weeks.”
His explanation, while still vague, holds together better than what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered earlier on Tuesday.
Pompeo both pointed to Soleimani’s history of violence and attacks against Americans as rationale for the strike, seemingly switching away from the imminent attack defense to one of retribution. He did add that Soleimani was working to build up a “network of campaign activities” that could “potentially” end with American deaths.
The administration has struggled to coalesce behind one explanation for the sudden strike, bouncing between preemptive and retroactive rationales and declining to share any real specifics.
One point officials have come together on — including Esper and Pompeo — is that President Donald Trump’s threat to attack Iranian cultural sites, should tensions escalate, is an empty one.
“I have no doubt in my mind that at the end of the day, we will follow the laws of armed conflict if we end up in a situation with Iran, and that the commander in chief will only give us legal orders,” Esper said, referring to the war crime Trump put on the table.