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Trump-Directed Attack That Killed Iranian General Raises U.S.-Iran Tensions


That sound is from the streets of the Iranian city of Kerman today. Thousands of people are protesting the killing of General Qassem Soleimani. He was the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, and he was killed in a U.S. strike at Baghdad's International Airport overnight. Iran's supreme leader is vowing to retaliate. So what happens next?

Robin Wright is with us. She's a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center and a contributing writer at The New Yorker. Good morning.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Good morning.

KING: How big an escalation is this U.S. strike that killed General Soleimani?

WRIGHT: The assassination of Soleimani is the boldest act, militarily, that the United States has carried out against Iran since the 1979 revolution. It's hard to imagine anyone except the supreme leader who would have a more profound effect on the balance of power, on the dangers to all sides in the region. This is really one that is earth-shattering.

KING: Given that the stakes are, as you say, earth-shattering, I want to ask you about options for diplomacy. Iran has summoned the Swiss envoy who represents U.S. interests in Tehran. Is there any chance that this is resolved diplomatically?

WRIGHT: Until this assassination, there had been repeated attempts to get President Trump together with President Rouhani of Iran to discuss the broad range of issues centered around the nuclear question, missile tests, Iran's role in the Middle East, particularly in war zones, and support for extremist movements. And there had been some very hopeful signs. In November, at the United Nations General Assembly opening, president France - Macron of France had arranged a telephone call between the two men that he would orchestrate.

But President Rouhani wanted some guarantee that if negotiations started, that the United States would be willing to lift sanctions eventually. President Macron got to President Rouhani's suite. The U.S. set up the telephone line for President Trump. But Trump did not make that promise. And Rouhani instead locked himself in his bedroom.

KING: And now we have this strike, and that makes me wonder, to follow up on that, do you think the United States wants a diplomatic resolution here?

WRIGHT: I think President Trump was, but I - does. But I think that there's also a division within the administration over what the ultimate goal is. Is it regime change? Is it to change the behavior of the regime? The official language is that Trump would like to meet with Iranian leaders, as he did with Kim Jong Un and North Korea, and work out new terms that keep both sides happy.

It's very hard to see how that happens anytime soon after Soleimani's assassination. I think it would be very hard. Iranians are very into concepts of face and humiliation. And they also have an ideology that's based around martyrdom. There will be a period where they honor Soleimani as a martyr to the cause, seek retaliation. And I think diplomacy, if it happens, is going to be on hold for a while.

KING: What other kind of response might you envision from Tehran at this point?

WRIGHT: I think almost certainly that its national security council will be debating what actions it should take against the United States. And that will include anything from strikes on U.S. embassies, military bases, the potential kidnapping of Americans - long-range, potentially, you know, some kind of attempt to even strike inside the United States. The range is wide. The dangers are real.

KING: OK. Robin Wright is a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center and a contributing writer at The New Yorker. Thank you so much for your time.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.