Seven Days in January: How the U.S. and Iran Approached the Brink of War

Still, watching television in Florida, Mr. Trump grew agitated by the chaos and ready to authorize a more robust response. And on Dec. 31, even as the protests were beginning, a top secret memo began circulating, signed by Robert C. O’Brien, his national security adviser and, listing potential targets, including an Iranian energy facility and a command-and-control ship used by the Revolutionary Guards to direct small boats that harass oil tankers in the waters around Iran. The ship had been an irritant to Americans for months, especially after a series of covert attacks on oil tankers.

The memo also listed a more provocative option — targeting specific Iranian officials for death by military strike. Among the targets mentioned, according to officials who saw it, was Abdul Reza Shahlai, an Iranian commander in Yemen who helped finance armed groups across the region.

Another name on the list: General Suleimani.

General Suleimani was hardly a household name in the United States, but as far as American officials were concerned, he was responsible for more instability and death in the Middle East than almost anyone.

As the head of the elite Quds Force, General Suleimani was effectively the second-most powerful man in Iran and had a hand in managing proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, including a campaign of roadside bombs and other attacks that killed an estimated 600 American troops during the height of the Iraq war.

At 62, with a narrow face, gray hair and a close-cropped beard, General Suleimani was known for traveling without body armor or personal protection, collaborating with some of the most ruthless figures in the region while sharing meals with the fighters and telling them to take care of their mothers, according to a Hezbollah field commander who met him in Syria.

After decades of working in the shadows, General Suleimani had emerged in recent years following the Arab Spring and war with the Islamic State as the public figure most associated with Iran’s goal of achieving regional dominance. Photographs surfaced showing him visiting the front lines in Iraq or Syria, meeting with Iran’s supreme leader in Tehran or sitting down with the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. When President Bashar al-Assad of Syria visited Tehran last year, it was General Suleimani who welcomed him.

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