U.S. officials knew Iranian missiles were coming hours in advance

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, front left, listens as President Trump addresses the nation Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, front left, listens as President Trump addresses the nation Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Iranian missile strike on American locations in Iraq on Tuesday was a calibrated event intended to cause minimal American casualties, give the Iranians a face-saving measure and provide an opportunity for both sides to step back from the brink of war, according to senior U.S. officials in Washington and the Middle East.

White House officials were bracing as early as Tuesday morning for Iran to respond to the U.S. killing last week of Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

U.S. officials said they knew by Tuesday afternoon that Iran intended to strike at American targets in Iraq, although it was not immediately clear exactly which they would choose.

The early warning came from intelligence sources as well as communications from Iraq that conveyed Iran’s intentions to launch the strike, officials said.

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“We knew, and the Iraqis told us, that this was coming many hours in advance,” said a senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence and diplomatic communications.

“We had intelligence reports several hours in advance that the Iranians were seeking to strike the bases,” the official said.

That gave military commanders time to get U.S. troops into safe, fortified positions at the bases.

According to military officials, before the attacks, troops at bases in Iraq were ordered into bunkers, donned protective gear and were told to “shelter in place.” They remained in their protected positions for hours, including after the strike. One official said at least some troops left al-Asad air base in western Iraq before the attack. That base, which houses some U.S. troops, was ultimately hit, along with a facility in Irbil, in northern Iraq.

In an address from the White House on Wednesday morning, President Trump credited an “early warning system” for helping prevent loss of life, though he did not elaborate on the specific indications the United States had in advance. A defense official later said the president was referring to the radar network the military has searching for potential enemy missiles.

At least two sources of intelligence gave the U.S. time to prepare.

First, there were indications before the launch that Iran was preparing to strike at targets in Iraq, officials said. It was not clear whether that information came from a person or some technical means, such as intercepted communications. A defense official said the U.S. military had “clear indications” of a strike prior to launch, from information “internal to [the] U.S. government.” Military officials had assessed that Iran would attempt some kind of retaliation at the end of the official mourning period for Soleimani.

A second source of warning came from what one official described as technical means. The U.S. military has satellites that can detect a missile shortly after its launch. U.S. officials alerted allies to the launches shortly after they occurred, according to one Western official. Iran launched more than a dozen missiles, officials have said.

U.S. officials began alerting reporters to the possibility of an Iranian strike beginning at 4 p.m. Tuesday, an hour before the strikes. Vice President Pence was scheduled to conduct a television interview that evening but canceled earlier in the day.

In Iran, the regime had positioned itself for a public messaging campaign. Late Tuesday afternoon, Iran transmitted a letter to the U.N. Security Council with a legal basis for military retaliation, but it was not made public, said a diplomat familiar with the document.

After the attacks, parts of the letter’s legal arguments appeared in a tweet from Iranian Foreign Mohammad Javad Zarif in his defense of the missile strikes.

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched,” Zarif said. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

After the missiles hit their targets, U.S. military officials began to assess the damage. By 7:30 p.m. Washington time, officials had briefed Trump and were “able to pretty clearly say we don’t think any Americans are going to be killed,” the senior administration official said. “We knew that no Americans were hurt, either.”

The lack of casualties gave administration officials more confidence that the Iranians had intended to make a public show of force largely to save face at home, the senior administration official said. The official added that a consensus is building that Iran could have done more damage.

Defense Secretary Mike T. Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived at the White House around 7 p.m. to be with the president. About an hour later, Trump began calling lawmakers, including allies such as Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). Trump told them that no Americans had been killed in the missile attacks and that a path to negotiations with Iran had now opened, the senior administration official said.

“The president doesn’t want a war, but he doesn’t want to tolerate provocation against American interests,” Graham said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Graham said he hoped that Iran’s attack was “a show of force for domestic purposes.”

“They want a show of force,” he said, “but they want this to end, because they are scared of the president. I hope that is true.”

Matt Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, told aides in a Roosevelt Room meeting Tuesday afternoon that it would take at least two months to understand whether the U.S. strategy was working.

“Our initial reaction has been, this was a domestic effort from the Iranians to save face, not to go to war, so we have proceeded in that vein,” said another senior administration official with knowledge of the analysis.

Trump had told senior military officials Tuesday evening that he did not want to start a war with Iran and wanted a path to ease tensions, which had been escalating at a frantic pace since the strike on Soleimani, the senior administration official said. When Trump’s military advisers told him there was reason to believe the missile strikes were not designed to kill Americans, a way out appeared, the official said.

Even with the advance notice, U.S. military officials were still scrambling after the attack to assess the damage and determine Iran’s intentions. Some service members in Iraq thought initially that a volley of rockets had landed at al-Asad air base, with the Pentagon later clarifying that Iran had used more-powerful missiles.

U.S. forces in the region remained on high alert after the strikes, but no significant troop movements have been made in Syria or elsewhere, according to military officials.

The Pentagon and State Department sent staffers to the White House on Wednesday morning to write Trump’s speech. He made some last-minute additions, including the decision to start his remarks by declaring, “As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”

“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said.

Some officials acknowledged that Iran was likely to continue attacks via proxies and other means, and so forces remain are remaining on high alert. But there was a growing sense among administration officials that killing Soleimani had sobered Iran up to Trump’s willingness to act.

“We actually believe this will be de-escalation,” the senior administration official said. “We’re obviously going to be on alert for proxies with one-off attacks. But we think this worked.”

John Hudson and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.159 CommentsShane HarrisShane Harris covers intelligence and national security for The Washington Post. He has been a writer at the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Beast and Foreign Policy, among other publications. He has written two books, “The Watchers” and “@War,” and is a national security analyst for CNN. FollowJosh DawseyJosh Dawsey is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. He joined the paper in 2017. He previously covered the White House for Politico, and New York City Hall and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the Wall Street Journal.FollowMissy RyanMissy Ryan writes about the Pentagon, military issues and national security for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2014 from Reuters, where she reported on U.S. national security and foreign policy issues. She has reported from Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Chile.FollowDan LamotheDan Lamothe joined The Washington Post in 2014 to cover the U.S. military and the Pentagon. He has written about the Armed Forces for more than a decade, traveling extensively, embedding with each service and covering combat in Afghanistan numerous times.Follow

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