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story.lead_photo.caption In this image from video, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper talks to the press on Iran and Iraq, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, at the Pentagon in Washington. (divids via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Mark Esper explicitly said Sunday that he had seen no hard evidence 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 U.S. 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 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 is under pressure as he faces an expected impeachment trial in the Senate. Many in Congress also are upset over his handling of Iran, complaining 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.

Esper and O’Brien agreed Iran might have hit more than just the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital. However, 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.

However, 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 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 Sunday. Demonstrators defied the heavy police presence to protest their country’s days of denials it shot down the Ukrainian plane. Videos posted online showed protesters shouting anti-government slogans and moving through subway stations and sidewalks.

Esper said Iran deserves credit for taking responsibility for the shootdown.

“My hunch is it was an accident,” he said, adding although Iranian government officials initially blamed American propaganda, they ultimately “did the right thing by admitting it.” He said they need to allow a full investigation.

The Ukrainian plane crash early Wednesday killed all 176 people on board, mostly Iranians and Iranian-Canadians. After initially pointing to a technical failure and insisting the armed forces were not to blame, Iranian authorities Saturday admitted to accidentally shooting it down with its air defenses. That acknowledgement came in the face of mounting accusations by Western leaders.

Iran downed the Ukrainian flight as Tehran braced for retaliation after firing ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces. The ballistic missile attack, which caused no casualties, was a response to the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general, in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

Iranians have expressed anger over the downing of the Ukrainian flight and the misleading explanations from senior officials in the immediate aftermath. Later the government took the blame for the shootdown, saying it was caused by human error.

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