(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to comment Sunday on claims that the White House National Security Council asked the Pentagon last fall for options for a military strike against Iran, but a former Democratic senator said doing so would have been “very reasonable and rational thing” to do, given the circumstances.
Pompeo was asked about the report in the Wall Street Journal during a visit to the Middle East that has focused strongly on building a unified response to Iranian adventurism in the region. (A U.S.-led anti-Iran ministerial meeting is being planned in Warsaw next month.)
The Journal report, citing unnamed current and former U.S. officials, said the NSC request had been made after Iran-backed militiamen in Iraq fired mortars near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
It said the query had alarmed both the Pentagon and State Department, and that it was not clear whether President Trump knew about it.
National Security Advisor John Bolton has not commented on the claims, but speaking in defense of the reported request on Sunday was Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic senator who chairs the bipartisan lobby group, United Against a Nuclear Iran.
In an interview on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures,” Lieberman said asking the Pentagon for options would be “a very reasonable and rational thing for John Bolton to do.”
“Think about it: Iranian-backed militias, extremists, fired mortars in the vicinity of our embassy in Baghdad and our consulate in Basra, Iraq,” he said.
“That’s a sort of declaration of war,” Lieberman said. “But let’s not go that far. It was a hostile act. And if you let a country like Iran get away with it, they’ll do it again. And next time, they will hit our embassy or our consulate.”
“So I think what John Bolton did – in asking for military options for the president, who always will make the decision in the end – was rational,” Lieberman added.
He also argued that he guessed the Obama administration had done the same thing, even while negotiating the nuclear deal with the regime in Tehran – “that they had military fallbacks in case the negotiations didn't work, and Iran broke out and started to build a nuclear weapon.”
Some Iranian media outlets posted reports on the Journal’s claim, without official response from Tehran and with little comment.
Kayhan, a newspaper whose editor is appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, headlined its report, “Pentagon shuddered at mere thought of Iran attack.”
Like other outlets, Kayhan noted that Bolton has long been hostile towards the regime in Tehran.
The hardline paper recalled that, at a rally hosted by the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in Paris in 2017, Bolton had said it should be U.S. policy to ensure that the fundamentalist regime does “not last until its 40th birthday.”
Bolton – like Lieberman a longstanding supporter of the NCRI – made those comments before he joined the Trump administration last April. Since then he has repeatedly made clear that “regime change” in Iran is not this administration’s policy.
The Islamic revolution’s 40th anniversary is next month.
‘We’re going to go to the source’
The claims reported by the Journal suggest options were requested for a retaliatory strike after the mortar incident, rather than a fully-fledged military operation aimed at regime change.
On September 6, three mortars landed in Baghdad’s diplomatic district, not far from the U.S. Embassy. (Egypt, Italy and Denmark also have embassies nearby.) Two days later, missiles landed near the U.S. Consulate in the southern city of Basra.
No damage or injuries were reported, but in a brief statement several days later, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the attacks “life-threatening” and pointed a finger at Tehran.
“Iran did not act to stop these attacks by its proxies in Iraq, which it has supported with funding, training, and weapons,” she said. “The United States will hold the regime in Tehran accountable for any attack that results in injury to our personnel or damage to United States government facilities. America will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of American lives.”
In a CNN interview later that month, Pompeo was asked about the incidents in Iraq, and said, “we have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor.”
“We will not let Iran get away with using a proxy force to attack an American interest. Iran will be held accountable for those incidents.”
“Even militarily?” Pompeo was asked.
“They’re going to be held accountable,” he replied. “If they’re responsible for the arming and training of these militias, we’re going to go to the source.”
Reports from Iraq at the time said the mortars were evidently launched from Zayouna, an area of the capital where Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the most prominent Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, operates openly.
U.S. military commanders hold Asaib Ahl al-Haq (“League of the Righteous”), another Shi’ite militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and their Iranian Qods Force backers, responsible for IED attacks that killed as many as 500 U.S. troops during the Iraq war.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s leader recently warned that if Trump does not remove the 5,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, “we have the experience and the ability to eject them by other means.”
Reacting to the Journal report the National Iranian American Council, which advocates engagement with Tehran, called for a congressional probe.
“We know that Bolton and other administration officials preferred an Iran war to negotiations prior to serving Trump,” NIAC president Jamal Abdi said. “Now there is confirmation that they are still seeking out opportunities to fulfill their war agenda.”
Abdi said Congress must “investigate Bolton’s request for war options” and pass legislation restraining the administration’s ability to start a war.