WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials braced for Iran to respond to the killing of its most powerful general, noting heightened military readiness in the country and preparing for a possible tit-for-tat attempt on the life of an American military commander. They warned ships across Mideast waterways crucial to global energy supplies about the "possibility of Iranian action" against U.S. maritime interests in the region.
President Donald Trump ordered the Jan. 2 strike against Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, after the death of an American military contractor in Iraq. Now, amid massive demonstrations of Iran's public mourning period for Soleimani and a state TV report of a deadly stampede at his funeral, officials believe the next steps by America's longtime foe will determine the ultimate course of the latest crisis.
While officials say American intelligence isn't clear on whether Iran's latest military moves are designed to bolster Tehran's defenses or prepare for an offensive strike, the United States is continuing to reinforce its own positions in the region, including repositioning some forces. One official said the United States anticipated a "major" attack of some type within the next day or two.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said no decision had been made about withdrawing troops from Iraq. Pro-Iranian factions in the Iraqi Parliament have pushed to oust U.S. troops after Soleimani's killing on Iraqi soil. Esper spoke to reporters after a letter from a U.S. Marine general seemed to suggest a withdrawal had been ordered in response to a vote by the Iraqi Parliament over the weekend. "There's been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq," Esper said.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Maritime Administration issued the warning for ships, citing the rising threats after Soleimani's killing. Oil tankers were targeted last year in mine attacks the States blamed on Iran. Tehran denied being responsible though it did seize oil tankers around the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s crude oil passes.
Soleimani's death, which has sparked major protests, further nuclear development and new threats of violence, has raised the prospect of a wide and unpredictable conflict in the Middle East and escalated tensions between Iran and the United States.
The two nations have careened from one flare-up to another since Trump began his "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran shortly after taking office. He abrogated the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed crushing economic sanctions, both steps aimed at preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and deterring the sort of regional aggression spearheaded by Soleimani.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions, said targeting Soleimani was not representative of a wholesale shift in U.S. policy toward Iran, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's comments on Sunday that the United States was targeting Iran's "actual decision-makers" rather than its network of proxy allies. Trump has repeatedly contended that he is not seeking "regime change" in Iran, as has been pushed by some of his more hawkish advisers.
Still, Trump's strike against Soleimani, a revered figure in Iran whose death sparked large displays of anger and grief, was a risky decision his Republican and Democratic predecessors opted not to take out of concern it would draw the United States and Iran closer to war.
U.S. officials are aware that Iran could try to strike a high-level American leader in a tit-for-tat move, potentially a military commander.