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Soleimani Assassination Marks 'Peak Hatred' In History Of U.S.-Iran Animosity


Iran today again promised to seek revenge after a U.S. airstrike in Iraq killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, and the U.S. State Department is urging American citizens to leave Iraq immediately amid rising concerns about the safety of U.S. citizens throughout the Middle East - all this against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran that many worry could lead to more conflict and violence in the region.

But how did we get here, and where does this go from here? We're going to spend the next hour on this program answering those questions with analysts with decades of experience in the region. We're also going to hear a range of reactions from around the world. But we're going to begin with that first question - how did we get here? And to tackle that, we've asked Karim Sadjadpour to join us. He's a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Karim Sadjadpour, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: So, first of all, you've been following Qassem Soleimani and his role in the region for some time. If you could just remind us of why this one Iranian military commander was such a central character and everything that's happened in the Middle East in recent years.

SADJADPOUR: Well, Qassem Soleimani's career was launched when he went off to fight in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. But he didn't really become a major international figure until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Suddenly, Iran really felt existential angst at that time. There was talk that after invading Iraq, the U.S. government was going to then go and invade Iran. And so Iran really put on a full-court press in Iraq to counter the U.S. experiment in Iraq to make sure it wasn't successful, to sabotage it. And Qassem Soleimani really led that charge.

And then after that, he kind of expanded Iranian power throughout the region in places like Lebanon, cultivating ties with Hezbollah in Afghanistan. You know, Qassem Soleimani played a major role in saving the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, and then he projected Iranian power in Yemen. So he was really the tip of Iran's spear in the regional power projection.

MARTIN: So I want to ask you to put this killing in the larger context of the history of the U.S.-Iranian relationship, which, of course, goes back many, many years. And - but the relations between the two have been tense since at least the 1979 Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis that followed. And then, of course, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal that Iran had agreed to when the prior administration was in office. So if you - could you just put this event in the context of this? How significant is this event in this context?

SADJADPOUR: It's very significant. As you mentioned, we're now dealing with 40 years of acrimony between the United States and Iran after the 1979 revolution replaced the U.S.-allied monarch, the shah of Iran, with the U.S.-opposed theocracy led by Ayatollah Khomeini. And there've been various moments throughout this U.S.-Iran Cold War when we thought it could turn hot, and this is certainly one of these moments. We're kind of at peak hatred between the United States and Iran. Right now, the Iranian regime feels deeply aggrieved, deeply angry and deeply humiliated.

MARTIN: So what's your analysis, then, of what happens now? You mentioned that Iran feels humiliated. Does that indicate that they would feel a need to retaliate directly, to make it very clear that this is their response? Or do you think that the response might be through Iran's many proxies in the region, which, of course, Soleimani has been developing all these years? What do you see?

SADJADPOUR: Well, the irony here is that in an event like this, the person who would be entrusted with forming the Iranian response would, in fact, be Qassem Soleimani. And now that he's not around, you know, they obviously retain the regional proxies, and that's how Iran tends to like to operate. You try to act in a way that you have plausible deniability, try not to leave fingerprints. These days, in the era of drones, that's one more layer of deniability. But I expect over the course of the next six months to a year, we're going to see a lot of Iranian attempts to go after U.S. interests and U.S. allies - not just in the Middle East, but perhaps throughout the world.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I was noticing something you said about the drone strikes allow some of these actions to go forward without leaving footprints. What is your sense of why the Trump administration felt the need to not just carry out the strike but to claim responsibility for it? Because presumably, they could achieve the same result without making a big point. I'm just wondering what's your take on why. What was the logic of this?

SADJADPOUR: Well, I think the Trump administration and Trump himself really lost deterrence against Iran last year because several incidents happened. Iran started to attack oil tankers in the Persian Gulf - no U.S. response. Then Iran shot down a $180 million U.S. drone. Not only was there no response from Trump, but Trump thanked Iran for not shooting down a manned aircraft. Three months later, you saw an Iranian attack on Saudi Aramco - again, no response from the Trump administration.

So there was a fear in many parts of the U.S. government that Iran felt like it could act with impunity. And you even started to see Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly taunting President Trump because there was this perception in Tehran that Trump is averse to any conflict with Iran because he believes it's inimical to his 2020 reelection campaign. And so I think this really came as a shock to Iran. And the hope of Secretary Pompeo and others is that this could restore deterrence against Iran.

MARTIN: That was Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and the Middle East. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SADJADPOUR: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.