Donald Trump said he was not seeking a war with Iran, or “regime change,” after assassinating the country’s top general in an audacious drone strike.
The US president said he had acted to prevent a plot against America by General Qassim Soleimani, who he called a “sick monster”and “the number one terrorist anywhere in the world.”
Mr Trump said: “We took action last night to stop a war, we did not take action to start a war.
“Soleimani made the death of innocent people his sick passion, contributing to terror plots as far away as New Delhi and London. His reign of terror is over.
“He was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and and personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him.”
The president added: “We do not seek regime change. However, the Iranian regime’s aggression, including use of proxy fighters to destabilise neighbours, must end, and it must end now.”
If Americans anywhere were targeted by Iran he had “targets already identified and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary.”
On Friday night, the White House insisted it acted in response to clear threats against Americans.
Robert O’Brien, the US national security adviser, said Soleimani had arrived in Baghdad from Damascus and had been moving around the Middle East plotting imminent attacks on US diplomats and military personnel.
Iran has vowed to retaliate against the US airstrike, calling the move America’s “biggest mistake in west Asia” and threatening “severe vengeance”.
Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed in the US airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport early on Friday, a move that has provoked a major escalation in US-Iran tensions.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has issued a statement vowing to retaliate “in the right place and time”.
“America should know that its criminal attack on General Soleimani has been the country’s biggest mistake in west Asia, and America will not avoid the consequences of this wrong calculation easily,” it said.
“These criminals will face severe vengeance… in the right place and time,” it added.
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF.
In his first comments on the strike, Mr Trump tweeted on Friday morning: “General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught!
“He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of PROTESTERS killed in Iran itself.
“While Iran will never be able to properly admit it, Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country. They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!”
The Pentagon said the Mr Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani “in a decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad”.
“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more,” the Department of Defence said.