Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has privately delivered warnings intended for Iranian leaders that any attack by Tehran or its proxies resulting in the death of even one American service member will generate a military counterattack, U.S. officials said.
The potential for a significant military response to even an isolated event has fueled a broader internal debate among top Trump officials about whether the administration’s policy exceeds President Donald Trump’s specific goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the officials said.
One such message about retaliation was delivered during a hastily arranged visit to Baghdad by Pompeo in May after officials detected a spike in intelligence indicating that Iran’s militia proxies might resume assaults on U.S. forces operating in proximity to them across Iraq. While such attacks were common during the Iraq War, Pompeo told Iraqi leaders in a message he knew would be relayed to Tehran that a single American casualty would prompt the United States to hit back. That specific warning has not been previously reported.
“What happens if Americans are killed? That changes the whole thing,” said a senior administration official involved in Iran policy who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely. “It changes everything.”
Speaking during a visit to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday, Pompeo said Trump “does not want war” but stressed the United States would act if assaulted. “We are there to deter aggression,” he said. Trump himself has sent mixed messages about the seriousness of Iran’s actions and how he would respond to them.
The sudden departure Tuesday of Patrick Shanahan, who has served as acting defense secretary since January, could further sideline the Pentagon, which has campaigned to reduce the…