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Iran Response: Trump Falls Into History Of Long-Fraught Decision-Making


We're going to start today by trying to understand what happened this week between the U.S. and Iran. To review - on Thursday, Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone. Iran says the drone was over its territory, the U.S. says it wasn't. The U.S. prepared to launch retaliatory airstrikes, but President Trump says he canceled them after deciding the casualty toll would be too high. In a moment, we'll hear from a Republican former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We called him to ask what he thinks the next move should be by both Congress and the Trump administration.

But first, we're going to look at some history. This is not the first time Washington has faced a military challenge from Iran in recent history. During the late 1980s, another Republican president grappled with how to respond to Iran in the so-called tanker wars. Here's NPR's David Welna with more.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: According to President Trump, things were all set on Thursday evening for U.S. forces to attack three targets in Iran in retaliation for its shootdown of the American drone. Trump told NBC's Chuck Todd yesterday that's when some generals involved in planning the attacks showed up at the White House.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They came and they said, sir, we're ready to go. We'd like a decision. I said, I want to know something before you go. How many people will be killed? In this case, Iranians.

WELNA: Trump said when he learned 150 people could die from the strikes, he called them off for being, as he saw it, disproportionate to the downing of an unmanned aircraft. It was one more example of the conundrum that Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council says Iran poses for a president less inclined than some of his advisers to start another war.

BARBARA SLAVIN: This business in the Persian Gulf is an obvious testing to see what kinds of attacks can be staged without provoking a reaction.

WELNA: A little more than three decades ago, Iran was also testing the willingness of another president, Ronald Reagan, to use military force. At the time, Iranian mines had been blowing holes in oil tankers as part of a lengthy war with Iraq. Steven Simon is a historian who was senior director for the Middle East on the National Security Council in the Obama White House.

STEVEN SIMON: The Reagan administration was quite cautious in its use of force and responded to the Iranian attacks against shipping only really rather late in the game. And that was owing to the fact that one of the Iranian mines knocked out a U.S. frigate.

WELNA: Ten American sailors were injured when the USS Samuel B. Roberts was hit by a mine. Four days went by while the U.S. determined the mines were of Iranian origin. Then came retaliation.


UNIDENTIFIED SAILOR: This is a warning - stop and abandon ship. I intend to sink you. Over.

WELNA: A U.S. Navy documentary describes the nine-hour sea battle that ensued.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: In response, an Iranian patrol boat fired on U.S. forces at the Siri platform, only to be sunk by USS Simpson and USS Wainwright.

WELNA: More than 50 Iranians and two Americans died in what became known as Operation Praying Mantis. Five Iranian naval vessels were sunk. President Reagan said a clear message was being conveyed to the Iranians.


RONALD REAGAN: They must know that we will protect our ships. And if they threaten us, they'll pay a price.

PAUL SELVA: The circumstances are very different now than they were in the '80s.

WELNA: That's General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, speaking to reporters earlier this week.

SELVA: We got a substantial amount of our oil at that time from the Persian Gulf. We are now in a position where the bulk of that oil goes to five countries in Asia. And none of those countries have actually shown any real predilection to press the Iranians to stop what they're doing.

WELNA: It's Iran's quest for nuclear weapons that concerns the U.S. now. But former NSC member Simon says what hasn't changed is the challenge Iran continues to pose.

SIMON: Every U.S. administration has come in wanting to slap the Iranians around and then left office seeking some kind of reconciliation, or they've come in seeking a reconciliation and left disappointed and angry and eager to slap the Iranians around. It's an immensely difficult policy problem.

WELNA: One that's become even more difficult over the past few days. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.