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Image: Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, from center, attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's (not seen) meeting with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, Iran on Sept. 18, 2016.Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader / via Getty Images file

White House effectively admits Iran did not pose an 'imminent threat'

We're dealing with a dynamic in which the president risked a war for reasons that now appear illegitimate.


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sat down with NBC News' Richard Engel last week and reflected on the violence between the United States and Iran last month. Zarif argued in the interview that the Trump administration brought the region very close to the brink." He added, "We were very close to a war."

There are still all kinds of questions, however, about why we were very close to a war. According to the Trump administration, the military offensive that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was necessary in order to prevent an "imminent" attack. At least, that was the line in January. As the New York Times reported, the White House has dramatically changed its posture.

The White House told Congress on Friday that President Trump authorized the strike last month that killed Iran's most important general to respond to attacks that had already taken place and deter future ones, contradicting the president's claim that he acted in response to an imminent threat.

The official explanation for the U.S. military strike, which was sent to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is required by law, said that the offensive was intended as a "response to an escalating series of attacks in preceding months" by Iran and militias that enjoy Iranian support.

This seems like a good time to pause and take stock. As regular readers may recall, after Donald Trump authorized an airstrike that nearly sparked a war, Americans were told the mission was approved in order to prevent an imminent attack.

Well, maybe not imminent. But the president and his team certainly knew of a deadly attack Soleimani was planning. Except maybe "knew" was too strong a word, since the administration didn't know who, what, where, or when the general intended to strike. Except the opposite might also be true, since Trump said Soleimani was targeting an embassy. No, wait, not just any embassy, but the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Hold on, maybe it was four embassies.

After these meandering and contradictory explanations for the airstrike effectively collapsed, the president told a group of donors at Mar-a-Lago that he approved the strike that killed Soleimani because the general "was saying bad things about our country."

I know I've stressed this point a few times, but we're dealing with a dynamic in which the president risked a war for reasons that now appear illegitimate -- just as his Senate impeachment trial was poised to get underway. While his most sycophantic followers may find that satisfactory, the rest of the political world need not accept politically motivated lies about national security so casually.