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Why The U.S. Waited So Long To Act On Iran Gen. Qassem Soleimani


Iran's major general, Qassem Soleimani, was on the U.S.'s radar for years. The American military says Soleimani commanded Iranian forces and worked with Iraqi militias that killed hundreds of U.S. troops. So how did he escape Washington's reach for so long? Here's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: The U.S. government designated Iran's Qassem Soleimani a supporter of terrorism way back in 2007. At that time, U.S. General David Petraeus was battling insurgents in Iraq who were being guided by Soleimani from afar. And they were often killing American troops.

DAVID PETRAEUS: He was a very significant and formidable adversary.

MYRE: But there was no real way for Petraeus to act against Soleimani back then.

PETRAEUS: I can note that during the time that I was the commander in Iraq, Qassem Soleimani certainly never dared set foot in the country.

MYRE: However, in recent years, Soleimani had become a periodic visitor to Iraq. And shortly after his plane touched down at the Baghdad airport on Friday morning, a U.S. drone strike turned his car into a fireball. It killed the man who's been the architect of Iran's military operations throughout the Middle East. Petraeus says his death deals a serious blow to Iran.

PETRAEUS: I think it is impossible to overstate the significance of this action. He is, in my view, the second - or was - he was, in my view, the second-most important person in Iran, second only to the supreme leader.

MYRE: Soleimani, age 62, sported silver hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and popped up across the region in well-pressed military fatigues. He spent almost his entire adult life engaged in Iran's regional conflicts. And since the late 1990s, he commanded Iran's Quds Force, comparable to U.S. Special Forces. He came to symbolize Iran's effort to be the leading power broker across the region, from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. The U.S. watched as his influence grew.

ROB MALLEY: It's not as if Qassem Soleimani was not in the administration's crosshairs for the last two administrations.

MYRE: Rob Malley was a Middle East expert on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. He's now head of the International Crisis Group.

MALLEY: There were opportunities in the past, no doubt, to assassinate him. The decision at the time was made not to do so because the assessment was that the risks outweighed the benefit. Clearly, this administration, President Trump, has changed this calculus.

MYRE: Trump has waged a maximum pressure campaign and repeatedly threatened the country. Malley, meanwhile, believes Iran will now retaliate, perhaps in a big way.

MALLEY: Killing him is, for all intents and purposes, a declaration of war.

MYRE: But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN the administration acted because it had intelligence that Soleimani was planning another attack.


MIKE POMPEO: He was actively plotting in the region to take actions - a big action, as he described it - that would have put dozens, if not hundreds of American lives at risk.

MYRE: Pompeo declined to provide details. In recent years, Soleimani had gone from a shadowy figure to someone who was increasingly visible on the frontlines of conflicts like Syria, where he played a critical role in propping up President Bashar al-Assad.

MALLEY: He gained a lot of prestige in Iran because he went on the battlefield and was not a general who stayed behind, but who went sometimes where the risk was. And I think that contributed to his image.

MYRE: In a strange twist, he found himself on the same side as the U.S. a couple of years ago. Iraqi militias under his guidance and American troops were both battling the Islamic State. Again, David Petraeus.

PETRAEUS: He was doing selfies on the front lines with Iraqi militia fighters.

MYRE: But that alignment didn't last. Earlier this week, Trump blamed Iran for killing a U.S. contractor and for orchestrating the attempt to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Defense Secretary Mark Esper dropped a hint of what was coming, saying Thursday that, quote, "the game has changed." Rob Malley is skeptical that Soleimani's death will change Iran's behavior.

MALLEY: They've already named his replacement. And one should expect that Iranian foreign policy is not going to change in any significant way as a result of his death.

MYRE: Hours after Soleimani was killed, Iran's supreme leader vowed to continue the same course.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.