WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Mark Esper explicitly said Sunday that he had seen no hard evidence that four American embassies had been under possible threat when President Donald Trump authorized the targeting of Iran's top commander, raising questions about the scale of the threat described by Trump last week.
As the administration struggled with its justification for the drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Esper and other officials tried to refocus attention on voices of dissent in Iran.
Esper said street protests in Tehran show the Iranian people are hungry for a more accountable government after leaders denied, then admitted shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane. The plane was downed shortly after Iran launches strikes against US bases in Iraq in retaliation for Soleimani's killing.
"You can see the Iranian people are standing up and asserting their rights, their aspirations for a better government -- a different regime," Esper said. He appeared on two Sunday news shows while national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, was interviewed on three others -- pressing the White House's campaign to bring "maximum pressure" on Tehran to change its behavior.
O'Brien suggested the United States sees this moment as an opportunity to further intensify pressure on Iran's leaders, with whom the U.S. has been at odds for four decades. Iran's leaders already are under enormous strain from economic sanctions that have virtually strangled Iran's main source of income -- oil exports.
Trump himself is under great pressure as he faces an expected impeachment trial in the Senate. Many in Congress also are upset over his handling of Iran, complaining that the administration did not consult them in advance of the Jan. 3 strike that killed Iran's most powerful general, nor adequately brief members afterward. Trump complicated the debate by asserting on Fox News that he had to strike quickly because intelligence showed Iran could have attacked four American embassies. Both Esper and O'Brien said they agreed that Iran might have hit more than just the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital. But Esper, when asked whether there was a specific piece of evidence, replied: "I didn't see one with regard to four embassies.'' And in response to a question about whether Trump was "embellishing'' the threat, Esper said, "I don't believe so."
After the U.S. killed Soleimani in Baghdad, it appeared the backlash in Iran and elsewhere had helped Tehran by shifting the focus away from its internal problems. The strike also seemed to divert attention away from domestic unrest in Iraq over government corruption, and it intensified efforts by Iraqi politicians to expel American and other foreign forces.
But the shootdown of the Ukrainian plane on the night of the Soleimani strike, killing all 176 people aboard, opened a new avenue of pressure for the Trump administration.
"I think the regime is having a very bad week," O'Brien said.
"This was a regime that's reeling from maximum pressure, they're reeling from their incompetence in this situation and the people of Iran are just fed up with it," he said, adding that regime change is not U.S. policy.
"The people of Iran are going to hopefully have the ability at some point to elect their own government and to be governed by the leaders they choose," O'Brien said.
In Tehran, Iran's security forces deployed in large numbers on Sunday. Demonstrators defied the heavy police presence to protest their country's days of denials that it shot down the Ukrainian plane. Videos posted online showed protesters shouting anti-government slogans and moving through subway stations and sidewalks.
Earlier Sunday, Trump tweeted his support for the Iranian protesters.
"To the leaders of Iran -- DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS," Trump wrote on Twitter Sunday morning. "Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!