Iran’s Islamist leaders have a history of carrying out assassinations beyond their country’s borders, as well as taking hostages, since seizing power following a popular uprising in the late 1970s. In recent decades, Iran has generally avoided directly targeting U.S. diplomats, although Iranian-backed militias have long attacked U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel in Iraq.
Trump alleged after Soleimani’s killing that the Iranian general had been plotting attacks on American diplomatic missions, although U.S. officials later cast doubt on his claims. “They were looking to blow up our embassy,” Trump said in January, referring to the massive, heavily fortified U.S. diplomatic compound in Iraq. Later, in a Fox News interview, he said, “I can reveal I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies.”
Days after Soleimani’s death, Iran launched a ballistic missile salvo at a military base in Iraq that housed U.S. forces, causing traumatic brain injuries among dozens of American troops. Trump declined to retaliate and said, “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world” — though he announced fresh sanctions on the Iranian regime and warned it against further retaliatory moves.
Some analysts, however, said at the time that Iran likely would seek other ways to avenge Soleimani’s death. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, was at the top of Iran’s hit list earlier this year, according to media reports. McKenzie said last month that he expected a new “response” from Iran to America’s ongoing presence in Iraq.
“I do not know what the nature of that response will be, but we will certainly be ready for it, should it occur,” he said. On Wednesday, McKenzie confirmed plans to cut the U.S. troop presence in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000 by the end of September.
During an online forum in August, McKenzie said Iran was “our central problem” in the region, and acknowledged that the danger from Iranian proxies in Iraq had complicated U.S. efforts against ISIS, the radical Sunni terrorist organization and movement. “The threat against our forces from Shia militant groups has caused us to put resources that we would otherwise use against ISIS to provide for our own defense and that has lowered our ability to work effectively against them,” he said.