Why the U.S. military targeted Qassam Soleimani — and how Iran might react
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Why the U.S. military targeted Qassam Soleimani — and how Iran might react


JUDY WOODRUFF: One question now, how may Iran
respond to today’s American military strike, and how well-prepared is the U.S. military
to withstand Iran’s retaliation? Nick Schifrin is back with more on that. NICK SCHIFRIN: We now get two views from people
who watch or have dealt with Iran over the years. Retired Admiral Michael Mullen was chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, at a time when the U.S. significantly
increased the number of troops in Iraq and the war in Iraq intensified. And here with me is Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran
expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a global bipartisan think tank. Welcome back to you both to the “NewsHour.” Thank you very much. Karim Sadjadpour, let me start with you. How irreplaceable is Qasem Soleimani? KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment For International
Peace: Well, Nick, Iran is the only country in the world which is simultaneously fighting
three proxy wars with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. And Soleimani has been managing these proxy
wars for the last two decades. He has been leading Iran’s fight in places
like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. And he had very effectively built up a Shiite
foreign legion to project Iranian power throughout the Middle East. He was a figure who was widely respected within
the Iranian regime and with Iran’s regional allies. If you talk to U.S. military commanders, they
would say he’s enemy number one for the United States, far greater than al-Qaida, Osama bin
Laden, Baghdadi, and others. So I would say he’s as close to being irreplaceable
to Iran as any other individual in that regime. NICK SCHIFRIN: Admiral Mullen, do you believe
he is as irreplaceable as anyone is in Iran, outside of the leaders of the country itself? ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN (RET.), Former Joints Chiefs
Chairman: Well, it’s not a perfect comparison, Nick, but I do agree. I think the loss of Soleimani is the equivalent
of the loss of bin Laden or Baghdadi to the organization in which each of them — in which
each of them represents. And Soleimani has been a brilliant strategist. He has been the controlling entity inside
Iran for two decades. And this is a huge loss for the national security
apparatus inside Iran. I know we often talk, someone will come in
behind him. I’m sure that. But it will not be somebody that has the same
kind of capability as Soleimani. So it’s good riddance to him after a long
period of time. NICK SCHIFRIN: I’m reminded that Soleimani
would go to — could go to Moscow, could go to Beirut, could go to Damascus. Karim Sadjadpour, the fact that he could do
that means that Iran has the ability to respond across the region, as you said, a foreign
legion of Shia militia groups. What’s the most likely Iranian response, given
how high-profile, given how important he was to the country? KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, the regime has to
respond, or else they will lose face. But if they respond excessively, they could
risk losing their heads. And for the Iranian regime, what is paramount
is their own survival. Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, is
80 years old. He’s been ruling for 30 years. He’s not a gambler. I think that Iran has plenty of means at its
disposal to respond, both regionally and internationally. They like to operate via proxy. They like to have plausible deniability. These days, in the era of drones and cyberattacks,
they will be sure to employ that. And we know the old expression that revenge
is a dish best served cold. I don’t think that they’re not likely to launch
all hell in the next 48 hours. But this is going to be a sustained proxy
war against the United States and U.S. allies for many months to come. NICK SCHIFRIN: And even more intense than
it already is? KARIM SADJADPOUR: More intense, certainly. NICK SCHIFRIN: Admiral Mullen, I want to come
back to something that you said, the fact that Soleimani has been kind of the controlling
entity for two decades for some of these efforts that Iran — take me back to your time as
chairman. You served both in the Bush administration,
at the end of it, and into the Obama administration. In both of those administrations, there were
opportunities to kill Soleimani. Why were those opportunities not taken back
then? ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: I think the — the target
list, if you will, in those — in those times didn’t include Soleimani. And that’s different from the terrorist organizations
of al-Qaida in Iraq and ISIS over time. That said, he was somebody that we kept a
very close eye on and knew where he was and still felt, the sooner he was gone, the better. I think the fact that he’s a government representative,
an official, spent a lot of time obviously in Iran. So it’s a different approach in terms of assassinating
somebody. In this case, he’s a military commander on
the ground in Iraq with what appears to be exquisite intelligence on our part. And he’s planning to kill more Americans. He’s a legitimate target now. And for that — those reasons, actually, I’m
very supportive of taking him out. I recognize there’s significant risk here. I think the Trump administration, since it
left the nuclear deal, has been ratcheting it up. I worry that there’s no off-ramp for Iran,
and there’s no off-ramp for the U.S. for a diplomatic solution. So the risks are high. I just think, from the standpoint of eliminating
somebody who really was the strategic link for — for Iran’s national security was, at
this particular point, worth that risk. NICK SCHIFRIN: Karim Sadjadpour, there are
critics of this strike. And as, Admiral Mullen says, one of them is
about escalation. But he also brought up the nuclear deal. On Monday, Iran has promised to step away
a little bit more from the Iran nuclear deal. Could they actually do even something more
dramatic when it comes to nuclear for a response? KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I will expect Iran
to put its foot on the accelerator again in the nuclear context. Now, they’re very careful not to go from zero
to 100. They will try to go from zero to 20. The goal is to really further split the international
community. They’re not going to announce that they’re
moving full speed ahead for a bomb, something that would unite China, Russia and Europe
with the Trump administration. They want to move deliberately, in a way that
the world will essentially blame the Trump administration for provoking Iran, rather
than blaming Iran. And so they will restart their nuclear program. They will continue to launch proxy attacks
on the region. And, pretty soon, there will be pressure from
Israel. As Iran is inching towards nuclear weapons
capability, there will be pressure from Israel on the United States to take preemptive military
action. NICK SCHIFRIN: And, Admiral Mullen, you mentioned
no off-ramp. In the time we have left, how concerned are
you about the chances of escalation, the cycle of escalation, and the fact, as you put it,
that there is no off-ramp to that escalation right now? ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: It’s been very difficult to
see what the endgame is for the Trump administration with respect to Iran, and specifically the
diplomatic channel that needs to be created, so that we can both step down from this ladder,
if you will, before something really bad happens. We are in a situation where escalation has
taken place. And, in that, miscalculation can take place,
in which case it could really, really result in a disastrous outcome and another war in
the Middle East, which is the last thing in the world we need. NICK SCHIFRIN: And a war that President Trump
has promised not to actually get into, right? ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: He has. But it’s very clear — and this strike is
an example — that he will — he will take action to defend U.S. interests and U.S. citizens. So it’s — I mean, the options or the space
to maneuver here is just getting smaller and smaller. Someone needs to take a step to get us off
this path before something really bad happens. NICK SCHIFRIN: Mike Mullen, former chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment, here with me, thank you
very much to both. KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thanks, Nick.

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