Striking a tough guy pose, Donald Trump says the US will bomb Iran cultural sites if Tehran retaliates for Friday’s assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

US agencies led Trump into the order for the killing, by a US drone firing on Soleimani’s convoy outside Baghdad International report. They said the general, the head of the elite Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards, was planning attacking on American embassies, consulates, and personnel. They warned Trump that, having stood down US airstrikes inside Iran at the last minute in June, he might be portrayed as “weak” if he did not respond to attacks by Tehran-backed Iraqi militia — including a December 27 rocket assault that killed an American contractor and wounded four US troops, and the storming of the US Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday.

See also TrumpWatch, Day 1,079: How US Agencies Led Trump to Assassinate Iran’s General Soleimani
EA on Monocle 24 and BBC: A US-Iran Showdown After Assassination of Gen. Soleimani?

Trump’s attempts this summer and autumn for a face-to-face meeting with Iran’s leaders, and his rhetoric about bringing US troops back from the Middle East have been buried by the turn of events. So on Saturday he devoted tweets to threats, including against civilian and cultural sites in Iran:

Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.

Trump concluded Saturday night with the message:

Still, Trump maintained some distance from a confrontation with Iran with his continued portrayal of Soleimani as a “terrorist leader”, rather than one of the Islamic Republic’s top military and political officials. And his reference to “beautiful” weapons echoed his 2017 threats of “beautiful” bombs being dropped on North Korea — only for Trump to embrace his objective of photo-opportunity summits with Kim Jong-Un the following year.

Analysts quickly questioned if Trump’s tweets were bluster, noting that strikes on cultural targets break international law.

A Pentagon Miscalculation with Trump?

US officials tried on Saturday to rework the narrative of the decision to assassinate Soleimani. Possibly from concern about Iranian retaliation, they portrayed a Pentagon which did not favor the option but miscalculated in presenting it as a possibility to Trump.

“Senior officials” told The New York Times that the assassination option was added to make less extreme measures more palatable to Trump. They said he initially rejected it on December 28, the day after the 31-rocket attack — by the Iran-backed Iraqi militia Kata’ib Hezbollah — that killed the US contractor and wounded American troops near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

But Trump was angered by footage of the thousands of militia supporters raiding the US Embassy compound on Tuesday, said “Defense Department and administration officials”. He decided on Thursday night that Soleimani would be targeted, a decision that supposedly stunned “top Pentagon officials”.

The Times’ sources also undercut the Administration’s rationale for the assassination, that attacks on US positions and personnel were “imminent”. They spoke of disputes among officials over the supposed intelligence, saying that Suleimani’s movement from Damascus — where he led Iran’s effort to prop up the Assad regime — to Baghdad was “business as usual.”

One official cited US intelligence of communications between Iran’s Supreme Leader and Soleimani. He said the intercepted exchanges showed Ayatollah Khamenei had not approved any plans for an attack on American positions and was summoning the general to Tehran for discussions.

But the sources also indicated that the final decision for assassination was, in fact, the outcome of key US officials bumping Trump into his order. Vice President Mike Pence, who organized the planning for a drone strike, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were “two of the most hawkish voices”, according to “administration officials”.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had each rejected proposals for Soleimani’s assassination as too provocative and inviting Iranian retaliation.