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US defence chief denies Trump claims that Soleimani planned to attack 'four US embassies'

Defence Secretary Mark Esper denied Trump's suggestion four embassies were under attack [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 January, 2020

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US officials appeared to shy away from questions on the scale of the threat posed by a top Iranian commander killed by US forces.
US Defence Secetary Mark Esper on Sunday downplayed President Donald Trump's suggestion that four American embassies were targeted by Tehran to justify a drone strike that killed Iran's top military leader.

"I didn't see one with regard to four embassies," replied Esper on a US news show, when asked about whether there was specific evidence pointing to the assumption Trump had made. 

Last Friday, Trump said that Soleimani had been planning such an attack.

Yet Esper agreed with national security adviser Robert O'Brien, who also appeared on Sunday news shows, and maintained that it had been "consistent with the intelligence" to assume an attack on embassies in at least 
four countries.

The administration officials appeared to shirk questions on the scale of the threat posed by the leader of Iran's elite Quds Force, slain General Qasem Soleimani, drawing attention instead to dissent in Iran.

O'Brien suggested that the US would seize the opportunity to apply overwhelming pressure on Iran's leader, with whom the Washington has been at odds with since the birth of the Islamic Republic.

Crippling economic sanctions have already put the Iranian regime under profound strain, paralysing the country's main source of income - oil exports.

Esper pointed to street protests in Tehran as proof of Iranian's mass discontent at government accountabillity after leaders denied, then admitted shooting down a Ukranian passenger plane. 

"You can see the Iranian people are standing up and asserting their rights, their aspiration for a better government - a different regime," Esper said.

His attention-diverting tactics were mirrored by Trump, who tweeted in Persian in support of Iranian protestors, warning the government against a crackdown, as well as the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Trump's decision to assissinate Soleimani came as he was already under enormous pressure ahead of an impeachment trial in the Senate.

Many in Congress complained of having being cast aside from the process entirely, neither recieving consultation beforehand nor adequate briefing afterwards.

Following Soleimani's killing, it appears the backlash in Iran and elsewhere served to shift the focus away from Tehran's internal problems, much to the regime's advantage, according to AP.

It also helped to divert attention away from the mass unrest which rocked Iraq over government corruption, while intensifying efforts by Iraqi politicians to expel American and coalition forces.

Yet the shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, resulting in the deaths of all 176 people on board, provided the Trump administration with a new avenue to pressure Iran.

Read more: Iran Guards commander accepts responsibility for downed Ukrainian plane

"I think the regime is having a very bad week," O'Brien said.

"This was a regime that's reeling from maximum pressure, they're feeling from their incompetence in this situation and the people or Iran are just fed up with it," he said, affirming that regime change was no longer US policy.

"The people of Iran are going to hopefully have the abillity at some point to elect their own government and to be governed by the leaders they choose," O'Brien said. 

Iran's security forces were deployed in full force in Tehran on Sunday, as demonstrators protested their country's days of denials that it shot down the Ukranian plane.

Videos posted online show protestors chanting anti-government slogans, moving through subway stations and sidewalks.

Reflecting on the dramatic sequence of events preceding the downing of the Ukranian jetliner, Esper justified the killing of Soleimani as an act of self defence, claiming that the Washinton no longer anticipated further Iranian military attacks in retaliation. 

Despite this, the leader of Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said on Sunday that Iran's missile attacks on two US bases in Iraq were merely the start of the retaliation.

Hassan Nastallah called Iran's response, which caused no casaulties, a "slap" at the US, echoing an identical metaphor used by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei.

He called it the "first step down a long path" with the final destination a withdrawal of US troops from the region.

Esper appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation'' and CNN's "State of the Union.'' O'Brien appeared on ABC's "This Week,'' "Fox News Sunday" and NBC's "Meet the Press."

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