WASHINGTON — The U.S. "got it right" by killing Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday amid questions about President Donald Trump's decision to authorize the airstrike that killed the military leader last week.
Pompeo, speaking to reporters at the State Department, also maintained that the U.S. will act in accordance with international law, after Trump repeatedly said that the U.S. could threaten Iranian "cultural sites" — a possible war crime.
The Trump administration contends that Soleimani, whom the U.S. blames for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, had been planning more attacks and posed an imminent threat. Iran has vowed "harsh revenge" against the U.S., and experts suspect that some form of retaliation from Tehran is likely.
Senators are reportedly set to be briefed on the airstrike by top administration officials on Wednesday, and some reports have already hinted of a coming dispute about whether Soleimani's purported threats justified Trump's drastic move.
"If you're looking for imminence you need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Solemani," Pompeo said Tuesday morning.
"[And then you have] what we can clearly see were continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going lead potentially to the death of many more Americans," Pompeo said.
"It was the right decision. We got it right. The Department of Defense did excellent work. And the president had an entirely legal, appropriate and a basis as well as a decision that fit perfectly within our strategy in how to counter the threat of malign activity from Iran more broadly."
Soleimani, who led a special forces unit of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, has been a key figure in Iranian and Middle East politics. He and an aide were killed in a U.S. airstrike at Baghdad's international airport.
His death exacerbated already-high tensions between Iran and the U.S., and triggered concerns about retaliation from Iran and proxy forces.
Trump had followed up on the airstrike by vowing that, if Tehran retaliates, then the U.S. will attack Iranian sites "some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture."
On Air Force One on Sunday, Trump doubled down: "They're allowed to kill our people. They're allowed to torture and maim our people, they're allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we're not allowed to touch their cultural sites. It doesn't work that way."
But the Pentagon distanced itself from this threat shortly after. "We will follow the laws of armed conflict," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said when asked about Trump's remarks.
Asked if that meant "no" because targeting cultural sites constitutes a war crime under those laws, the nation's top general replied, "That's the laws of armed conflict."
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have ratcheted up since Trump withdrew from the Obama administration's landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. That nuclear agreement lifted sanctions that crippled Iran's economy and cut its oil exports roughly in half. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran accepted limits on its nuclear program and allowed international inspectors into its facilities.
Last May, Iran stopped complying with some of its commitments under the deal, which had been rebrokered with global powers after Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018. Trump had also reimposed sanctions on Iran.
After Soleimani was killed, Iran said it would no longer respect any of the limits in the 2015 nuclear deal. But Pompeo on Tuesday still downplayed Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons.
"President Trump could not be more clear. On our watch, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon and as we came into office Iran was on a pathway provided by the nuclear deal which clearly gave them the opportunity to have those nuclear weapons," Pompeo said. "We won't let that happen."
"I think this is kind of a stain on our reputation and it raises questions about the strategic vision and priorities of the administration," William Hartung, director of the Center for International Policy's Arms and Security Project, told CNBC.
"I think people need to think about what is at stake here and how bad it could get if we don't step back from the brink and think of some diplomatic approaches and not just tit-for-tat military strikes," he said, adding that a war with Iran would be "even more challenging than the war with Iraq."
"It's a much larger country, it's more complicated terrain and it would have a more rallied unified population," Hartung said.
What's more, the Middle East is still involved in an ongoing war with ISIS.
"As the President of Iraq, Barham Salih, told me over the weekend, the Middle East still hasn't finished the last war with ISIS, which until the collapse of its caliphate last year was considered the greatest security threat to the entire world," wrote Robin Wright, a distinguished scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in the wake of the attack.
"Iraq is now at the epicenter of tensions between Iran and the United States—and its leaders are deeply concerned about once again becoming the battlefield, the theater, the arena of some kind of overt or covert campaign," she wrote, adding that a conflict between Iran and the U.S. "would involve disparate force strengths."
"The United States has vastly superior airpower, arms and manpower to fight a conventional war. Iran has proven masterful at asymmetric war, notably through tactics such as suicide bombings and hostage-takings that can traumatize an entire nation at limited cost," Wright wrote.
-- Yelena Dzhanova and Kevin Breuninger contributed to this report from CNBC's global headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.