WASHINGTON - Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was "plotting imminent attacks in the region against Americans in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that could have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people," Mr Brian Hook, US Special Representative for Iran said in an interview, the day after a US air strike killed Soleimani at Baghdad airport.
The aftermath of the strike reverberated through Washington on Friday (Jan 3), with stocks down and oil prices up, and analysts warning of the danger of a plunge into war.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a series of phone calls to foreign governments and interviews on cable TV networks, insisted the assassination was justified, and that the US was still committed to de-escalation.
Mr Hook elaborated on the message in an interview with The Straits Times.
"The President's first responsibility is the safety of the American people," he said. "When somebody like that is plotting large scale attacks against Americans it would have been negligent to take no action."
"The President has a constitutional responsibility to prevent those actions from killing Americans," he insisted. "He took an entirely lawful action. I have seen all of the intelligence that supports the decision. It was very solid intelligence."
Iran had not taken US warnings seriously, he maintained, referring to 2018 incidents in which Iranian proxies fired rockets at US diplomatic facilities in Basra and Baghdad.
"We said we were not going to permit Iran the fiction of deniable attacks and if they injure or harm (anyone) we will take decisive action," Mr Hook said, adding that the warning had been repeated "countless times" since.
It was Iran that had escalated, he maintained. "The President showed restraint, repeatedly, to avoid a military response. And the Iranian regime did not take our threats seriously. And now they are sadder but wiser."
Mr Hook rejected warnings that the killing of a popular top general would harden nationalist sentiment in Iran.
"The Iranian regime is hated by most of the Iranian people and the regime hangs on by brute military force," he said.
"The Iranian people also for the most part do not have any love for Qassem Soleimani; he is the one who murdered 1500 Iranians recently," he added - a reference to the brutal suppression of anti-government protests across Iran in November 2019.
"The regime is acting not from a position of strength but from a position of weakness and panic," he said. "The regime knows that it is… simultaneously facing its worst financial and political crisis in its 40 year history, and brought it upon itself. This is a... theocracy that robs its own people blind," he said.
Iran had rejected counsel from French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and others, he noted.
"We would like to resolve our difference diplomatically," he said. "Iran would like to resolve our differences militarily. We will only act in self defence and we continue to hope for a diplomatic solution to addressing Iran's threats to peace and security."
The US had not once used the term "regime change" he insisted.
"We are looking for a change in behaviour from this regime," he said. "We would like to get a new deal that replaces the failed nuclear deal that comprehensively addresses all of Iran's threats to international peace and security and makes the Middle East more stable."
President Trump, over the concerns of allies who had also signed it, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal (officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) in May 2018, arguing that it was fatally flawed and would have eventually allowed Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.