How U.S. airstrikes could affect ongoing tensions with Iran

NICK SCHIFRIN: As we reported earlier, the
U.S. has launched its first military strikes against Iranian allies during the recent round
of tensions. Today, Iran and Iraq objected. Today in Basra, angry Iraqis condemned the
United States for attacking a foreign adversary on Iraqi soil. On Sunday, the U.S. bombed
this military base, home to an Iranian-backed Shiite militia. It was one of five U.S. targets
in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. says the strikes were in response to a Friday attack on an
Iraqi base that killed one American. The U.S. blames the group Kataib Hezbollah
and says it’s organized, trained, and equipped by Iran, and has attacked the U.S. in Iraq
11 times in two months. An official with an Iran-backed Iraqi militia
called for the U.S. to leave the country. ABU MUNTAZAR, Border Operations, Popular Mobilization
Front (through translator): This is a transgression on the security forces and on the sovereignty
of Iraq. The Iraqi government must carry its responsibility and take the crucial procedure
to demand the occupier to leave the Iraqi territories. NICK SCHIFRIN: In Russia for a meeting with
his counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the attack. And for, I’m joined first by Brian Hook, the
State Department’s special representative for Iran. Brian Hook, welcome back to the “NewsHour.” Why did the U.S. launch these strikes? BRIAN HOOK, State Department Special Representative
for Iran: Well, I think, over the last couple of months, you have had 11 attacks on Iraqi
bases that are hosting coalition forces, which include American forces. And President Trump has shown a great deal
of restraint over a number of months in the face of the various Iranian provocations.
But, during that time, he’s made very clear that we will attack in self-defense if we
are attacked. And on December 27, an American was killed
and a number of soldiers were injured in one of the bases. And this was an attack by an
Iranian proxy, and so the president took decisive action and conducted strikes against targets
in Syria and Iraq. NICK SCHIFRIN: Brian, Iran has vowed to fight
the maximum pressure campaign of the U.S. administration with maximum resistance. Are you worried these could start an escalation,
a cycle of escalation, if Iran responds with its own attack? BRIAN HOOK: Well, Iran has been escalating
for some time. And I think what we’re trying to do is send
a message of deterrence to the Iranian regime that they’re not going to be able to conduct
these attacks with impunity. And so the Iranian regime has been rejecting diplomacy for many,
many months. They have been making a lot of bad choices, and the maximum pressure campaign
will continue. NICK SCHIFRIN: Brian, you just mentioned deterrence,
but Iran shot down a U.S. drone earlier this year and attacked an oil facility in Saudi
Arabia, and there was no U.S. military response after those two incidents. Have you been worried that Iran feels that
it could get away with these attacks? BRIAN HOOK: Well, what we saw was an erosion
of deterrence for the many years preceding the president’s election three years ago. What we have done is, we have now sanctioned
over 1,000 individuals and entities as part of the Iranian regime. We’re trying to restore
deterrence. We’re trying to reverse the gains made by the Iranian regime over the last many
years. Iran today faces its worst financial crisis
and its worst political unrest in its 40-year history. But if we’re attacked, then we’re
going to respond, as the president did yesterday. NICK SCHIFRIN: But I know that you want to
talk ability deterrence after the Iran nuclear deal a few years ago, but the deterrence over
the last few months, I have heard from military officials fearing that that deterrence has
been lost. Do you worry that that deterrence, that the
fact that Iran felt it could get away with these attacks, do you feel like that was happening
because the U.S. wasn’t responding to previous attacks? BRIAN HOOK: Well, I think we did respond. We certainly increased the number of sanctions
on the regime. We enhanced our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. We
also put more troops in the region. We removed the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group.
So we did a number of things. But during that same period of time, the president
and Secretary Pompeo made clear that we will use military force if we are attacked. And
that happened then a few days ago. The president, as I said, has shown a great
deal of restraint, because the last thing America is looking for is another conflict
in the Middle East. NICK SCHIFRIN: Iraq’s prime minister has come
out against this today. Iraqi parliamentarians have used these strikes to argue the U.S.
needs to leave Iraq. Do you worry that these strikes will make
it harder for the U.S. to stay inside Iraq? BRIAN HOOK: Well, two important points. One, American troops are in Iraq at the invitation
of the Iraqi government. Two, the Iraqi government has the responsibility to ensure the safety
of American troops. And so we took the measures that were necessary for our own safety. And we think it’s important for the Iraqi
government to arrest and bring to justice those people who are responsible for attacks
on Iraqi bases that are hosting American forces. NICK SCHIFRIN: Are you suggesting that the
Iraqi officials failed in their job to protect U.S. forces? BRIAN HOOK: Well, there’s certainly more that
the Iraqi government can be doing. NICK SCHIFRIN: Brian Hook, U.S. special representative
on Iran, senior adviser to Secretary Pompeo, thank you very much. BRIAN HOOK: Thanks, Nick. NICK SCHIFRIN: And now, for a different perspective,
I’m joined by Vali Nasr, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International
Studies, who formerly served in the State Department during the Obama administration. Vali Nasr, welcome back to the “NewsHour.” VALI NASR, School of Advanced International
Studies, Johns Hopkins University: Thank you. NICK SCHIFRIN: Thank you very much. You heard Brian Hook talk about 11 attacks
in the last two months. Surely, the U.S. had to respond? VALI NASR: Probably, but they should have
done it through the Iraqi government, rather than taking it upon themselves to attack groups
that they call Iranian-backed clients , but which are obviously Iraqi, and they were actually
mobilized by decree from Ayatollah Sistani, the most senior cleric in Iraq. They fought against ISIS. They’re part of
Iraqi security forces. And the casualties are also Iraqi. So, the U.S. took a unilateral
action in another country, embarrassed the government of Iraq, and, in the view of Iraqis,
violated its sovereignty. NICK SCHIFRIN: I asked Brian, as you saw,
whether that might mean the U.S. has a more difficult challenge moving forward in Iraq,
staying in Iraq. The U.S. needs Iraqi help. He said that the
Iraqi government was not doing enough to defend U.S. troops. VALI NASR: It probably wasn’t. But, still,
embarrassing the Iraqi government does not help. And making the Iraqi government look
impotent does not help. Iraq is in a very fragile state right now.
It doesn’t have a prime minister. It only has an interim prime minister. It has to find
a new government. This will make — weaken America’s hand at this point in time. Iraq has been going through violent anti-Iranian
demonstrations for the past few months, which the United States celebrated as something
positive in Iraq. Now the United States has managed to make
itself the problem in Iraqi politics. The focus is going to shift from Iranian behavior
in Iraq to American behavior in Iraq. And that doesn’t serve American interests in the
region. NICK SCHIFRIN: Let’s shift over to Iran policy
— or U.S. policy on Iran. Over the last couple months, Secretary Pompeo,
even President Trump has set this red line that, if a U.S. soldier or service member
is killed, or an American is killed in any attack by Iran or Iranian-backed militias,
for example, in Iraq, they would respond. They set the red line. Do you give them credit
for keeping it? VALI NASR: Well, yes, they should keep their
word. But the bigger problem is that, where is this
policy going? The United States put maximum pressure on Iran to change Iranian behavior
and to bring Iran to the table. And that’s not happening. Instead of that, we’re seeing an Iran that
is becoming more adventurous, more risk-taking, and more dangerous. And the region around
Iran and the United States is collapsing into instability. The United States did not start the maximum
pressure strategy to go to war with Iran. But it increasingly looks like that’s where
it’s heading. This policy has failed. It hasn’t achieved
what it set out to do. And the administration refuses to acknowledge that more sanctions,
more pressure would only create more conflict and escalate this into something that neither
side may want. NICK SCHIFRIN: What you’re suggesting is,
there’s no off-ramp and that there is a fear of escalation. I asked about the fear of escalation. And
Brian Hook suggested that well, actually, it was the Iran nuclear deal that diminished
deterrence, that it was the Obama administration’s policy that allowed Iran to get away with
things and get more money. VALI NASR: Well, it seemed like things were
much more calm, much more stable in the region when the nuclear deal was there. And Iran and the United States didn’t see
eye to eye. But their situation is right now much worse. I mean, to claim that we are deterring
Iran at this time is not — is not really credible. Iran has shot down a U.S. drone, attacked
oil facilities, is attacking American troops in Iraq. How is this a deterrence? In fact,
it looks like Iran is putting deterrence on the United States. NICK SCHIFRIN: And just very quickly, what
Brian Hook and what others in the administration I think would say right now is, actually,
no, Hezbollah, for example, has less money to be able to do what it’s doing. Iranian
proxies around the region have less money because of the Trump administration policy. VALI NASR: But those are marginal gains. Has Lebanon become Hezbollah-free? Have the
militias in Iraq left? And has the Middle East actually become safer? And are we farther
away from a war with Iran than we were in 2015? The answer to all of these are no. This is a policy that has taken the region
and U.S.-Iran relations in the wrong direction. NICK SCHIFRIN: Vali Nasr, professor at the
School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, thank you very much. VALI NASR: Thank you. NICK SCHIFRIN: And on Instagram, we conclude
our series on global unrest with a report on demonstrators in Iraq calling for less
sectarianism and the end of corruption. You can find all that and more when you follow
the “NewsHour” on Instagram.

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