America’s top diplomat on Iran was only a few minutes into a speech on Tuesday afternoon when he was handed an urgent note.
Brian Hook, the special representative for Iran, was in Los Angeles to talk about US policy toward Iran. But by the time he stepped to the podium, he was already more than an hour late, having spent much of the day on a secure line speaking to US officials in Washington including his boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
And now, he had to leave.
“The peoples of Iraq and Lebanon and Iran, they want their country back,” Hook said. “And they are tired of Iran being unable to stay within its own borders. Thank you.”
With that, Hook walked briskly off stage. America’s defense apparatus was spinning into action.
Minutes earlier, US intelligence satellites had picked up signs of a heat signature from Iran, suggesting the country had just launched short range ballistic missiles. The US knew an impending attack was likely, thanks to a tip from the Iraqi government, which had been told by the Iranians an attack was coming and which bases to avoid.
Still, using information from the satellites and US aircraft in the region — which had intercepted Iranian communications — US intelligence analysts quickly determined that two bases in Iraq were the targets, al-Asad and Erbil. Within minutes, US troops stationed there were warned. They’d already been on high alert and sought safety in bunkers, according to a source familiar.
Troops took short-term cover the day before out of a concern of a possible attack. Now, the threat was imminent, and the troops were told of incoming missiles.
At 7:30 p.m. ET, the official announcement went out: Iran had launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against US military and coalition forces in Iraq.
Just five days after killing Iran’s top military leader, Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike in Baghdad, this was the moment that the Trump administration had been preparing for — a direct retaliatory attack from Iran.
News of the missile strike came as the administration had spent days stuck in a chaotic series of self-inflicted wounds. First, Trump had threatened to target Iranian cultural sites. Then there was the shocking letter announcing the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq that the Pentagon had to walk back as “a mistake.”
It all raised questions about the administration’s handling of the situation, and even had some Republican allies of the President privately expressing concern about whether the administration was truly prepared to deal with the events it had unleashed with the Soleimani strike.
The moment wasn’t lost on Trump’s top aides, who convened in the basement Situation Room knowing that the ensuing hours could redeem a chaotic several days — or cement the impression of a rudderless ship.
On Tuesday evening, aides watched as the situation went from the potential for dramatic conflict to one that seemed to offer Trump a new opportunity to deescalate. Bolstered by incoming messages from Iran sent through back-channels, Trump’s aides realized the damage would be limited.
“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 on Wednesday morning.
The following account of the events that unfolded over the past are based on interviews with dozens of Trump administration officials, foreign diplomats, as well as staffers and top lawmakers on the Hill.
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