President Donald Trump authorized the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani seven months ago if Iran’s increased aggression resulted in the death of an American, according to five current and former senior administration officials.
That decision explains why assassinating Soleimani was on the menu of options that the military presented to Trump two weeks ago for responding to an attack by Iranian proxies in Iraq, in which a U.S. contractor was killed and four U.S. service members were wounded, the officials said.
The timing, however, could undermine the Trump administration’s stated justification for ordering the U.S. drone strike that killed Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3. Officials have said Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, was planning imminent attacks on Americans and had to be stopped.
“There have been a number of options presented to the president over the course of time,” a senior administration official said, adding that it was “some time ago” that the president’s aides put assassinating Soleimani on the list of potential responses to Iranian aggression.
After Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June, John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser at the time, urged Trump to retaliate by signing off on an operation to kill Soleimani, officials said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also wanted Trump to authorize the assassination, officials said.
But Trump rejected the idea, saying he’d take that step only if Iran crossed his red line: killing an American. The president’s message was “that’s only on the table if they hit Americans,” according to a person briefed on the discussion.
Neither the White House nor the National Security Council responded to requests for comment. Bolton and the State Department also did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. intelligence officials have closely tracked Soleimani’s movements for years. When Trump came into office, Pompeo, who was Trump’s first CIA director, urged the president to consider taking a more aggressive approach to Soleimani after showing him new intelligence on what a second senior administration official described as “very serious threats that didn’t come to fruition.”
The idea of killing Soleimani came up in discussions in 2017 that Trump’s national security adviser at the time, retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, was having with other administration officials about the president’s broader national security strategy, officials said. But it was just one of a host of possible elements of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and “was not something that was thought of as a first move,” said a former senior administration official involved in the discussions.
The idea did become more serious after McMaster was replaced in April 2018 by Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk and advocate for regime change in Tehran. Bolton left the White House in September — he said he resigned, while Trump said he fired him — following policy disagreements on Iran and other issues.
The administration of President George W. Bush designated the Quds Force a foreign terrorist organization in 2007. Four years later, the Obama administration announced new sanctions on Soleimani and three other senior Quds Force officials in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
But in April, Bolton helped prod Trump to designate the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization. White House officials at the time refused to say whether that meant the United States would target Revolutionary Guard leaders as it does the leadership of other terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State militant group and al Qaeda.
Iran retaliated by designating the U.S. military a terrorist organization.
The actions underscored the rising tension between the United States and Iran in the three years since Trump took office.