January 3, 2020 / 9:35 PM / 17 days ago

UPDATE 1-Iranian commander Soleimani had been in Pompeo's sights for years

(Adds quotes from U.S. official)

By David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON, Jan 3 (Reuters) - Long before U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on television and Twitter on Friday to make the case for the U.S. decision to kill top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, he had the powerful military commander squarely in his sights.

Back in 2015, when Pompeo was a congressman for Kansas advocating regime charge in Iran while the Obama administration pursued engagement, he accused Soleimani, considered the second most powerful person in Iran, of having “the blood of hundreds of American service members on his hands,” a refrain he repeated on Friday after the U.S. air strike in Baghdad.

In July 2017, by which time he had become director of President Donald Trump’s Central Intelligence Agency, Pompeo’s stance on regime change may have been less overt, but when asked at the Aspen Security Forum whether regime change in Iran was a realistic or viable option, he replied:

“The folks who are causing the mischief - Qassem Soleimani and his gang - weren’t elected. Those are the folks that we are deadly focused on making sure don’t continue to maintain capacity and power.”

Later that year, Pompeo announced he had sent a letter to Soleimani and other Iranian leaders over Iran’s increasingly threatening behavior in Iraq, warning the United States would hold both them “accountable for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control.”

“We wanted to make sure he and the leadership in Iran understood that in a way that was crystal clear,” Pompeo told the Reagan National Defense Forum in Southern California.

After hearing via Iranian media that Soleimani refused to open the letter, Pompeo added: “Didn’t break my heart to be honest with you.”

As secretary of state, a position he took up in the first part of 2018, Pompeo pursued a notably more hawkish approach to Iran than his predecessors and frequently named Soleimani in speeches and interviews.

When Trump pulled the United States out of the 2015 landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, negotiated by the Obama administration, Pompeo was one of the most vocal proponents of the “maximum pressure campaign” that saw the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions in 2018.

U.S. officials said Friday’s “decisive action” had been threatened since Sept. 11 of 2018, when the White House put out a statement after attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq.

A senior administration official said statements from both Trump and Pompeo in the past year and a half, including one from Pompeo on Dec. 13, had warned that if Iran or its proxies conducted armed attacks that hurt U.S. personnel or interests, there would be such decisive action.

“They met the condition, and so then we then fulfilled the consequence,” the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Pompeo said on Friday the strike that killed Soleimani in Baghdad was aimed at disrupting an “imminent attack” that would have endangered Americans in the Middle East.

In interviews on Fox News and CNN, Pompeo declined to discuss details of the alleged threat but said there was “an intelligence based assessment” that Soleimani was plotting action in the Middle East region “that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk.”

In a tweet, Trump said Soleimani had “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more.” (Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis)

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