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U.S. Strategy Behind Killing Of Top Iranian Military Leader


All this hour, we've been hearing reaction from around the world to the U.S. airstrike that killed a top Iranian military commander, Qassem Soleimani. We're going to focus now on the overall U.S. strategy regarding Iran. Here to discuss that is the director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, Kirsten Fontenrose.

Ms. Fontenrose, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So you have two decades of experience in the region, both in and out of government. And you served on President Trump's National Security Council as senior director for Gulf affairs. While you were there, how much was the administration focused on Soleimani's activities?

FONTENROSE: Quite a bit. He was what we'd call a household name, to be honest, and he probably featured every day in our intelligence briefings. We tracked him quite closely.

MARTIN: So, you know, Soleimani and the Quds Force are said to have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans over the years as well as, I'm sure, countless other people over the years. And they've long been considered active threats. So that's not new. So in your analysis, what changed? I mean, what is the strategy behind calling for the attack on Soleimani now?

FONTENROSE: What changed recently is we saw him actively planning for attacks on U.S. civilians and U.S. forces. So in the past, he's been responsible for attacks on partners and allies, infrastructure, opposition groups. And he has been responsible for deaths that killed Americans, but we didn't see those in advance. So in this case, we had intelligence about active planning against our forces and our diplomats in Iraq. So it was a question of either him or us.

MARTIN: How do you think Iran will react to this attack on Soleimani in Iraq? I mean, we are hearing from voices within Iran that they say they believe their actions in the region have been defensive. They point out that the U.S., for example, was the entity that pulled out of the nuclear agreement, not them. So how do you think they're going to react?

FONTENROSE: Pulling out of a nuclear agreement doesn't necessarily necessitate a kinetic response. You know, they're responding with violence. If the tables were turned, the international community would have condemned America. So we don't see that pulling out was a provocation for violence.

But what I assume they will do now, just knowing what we know about them - that they've already convened an emergency meeting of their national security council, their Supreme National Security Council. That body will continue to meet. And they will design a slate of responses that will vary over time and geography. They will focus to the, you know, immediate region.

But then we will very likely see over coming months attacks in places that are intended to send the U.S. a message that they can get us anywhere. So they have operatives in West Africa. They have operatives in Latin America. They have cells other places. We may very well see either successful or attempted plots against our interests or our personnel in places like that.

MARTIN: And what about the rest of the region? What are you expecting there?

FONTENROSE: We definitely expect retaliation in the region because they were planning this anyway. You know, some of the attacks that we will see probably come online are things that Qassem Soleimani already had in chain and that his number two who has now taken over for him, Ismail Qaani, will very likely try to move forward.

The good thing is we have a little bit of intelligence on what those would have been, so they will be required to kind of sit back, recalibrate and perhaps redesign their attack plans. But we do know that our partners and allies in the region will now be the front line. So with the increased deployment of U.S. troops, we can expect those folks to go out to try to help defend that front line - partners like Bahrain and Kuwait and UAE and Saudi and - who kind of sit right on that border.

MARTIN: What do you think is the most important role for the U.S. right now? Because you can imagine that the domestic politics of these countries will be tested by what is to come. I mean, you're already hearing that many people in the region are saying they are the ones who are going to bear the brunt of this conflict.

FONTENROSE: Right. And, you know, that's rhetoric that we expected. To a certain extent, they're making a good point. To another extent, they are using that as a justification for requesting additional either funding or troops or equipment from the United States, which is kind of a constant request that we hear from the region.

So they are telling us now, you've made our region less safe. In truth, the region was already unsafe because of Iranian intent to continually gradually escalate attacks against U.S. and partners. We'd seen it. It's been ramping up. You know, the imminent threat information indicated that was not going to cease. So they're not really any more endangered than they were before Qassem Soleimani passed away. But they're turning to us and saying, you brought this on. You need to help us respond to it. And it's a fair request.

MARTIN: And so what should the U.S. do next, in your view - wait and see what Iran does? Is there a more proactive way to think strategically about the relationship with Iran now? What do you think the U.S.'s moves should be?

FONTENROSE: There are a couple of things that will already have happened just knowing how government works, how the administration works. And State Department will be actively engaging with Gulf partners and with European partners to see how they're feeling, whether they feel safe. Our intelligence community will be ramping up signals intelligence collection to see if any of the bad guy network is popping up to discuss these events or to discuss future plans.

They'll also be liaising with partner intelligence networks, you know, in Europe and in the Gulf to try to gather information on where these next retaliatory strikes might occur. The White House will be convening Policy Coordination Committees to talk about next steps. The State Department has already indicated they're sending people home - nonessential civilians. Department of Defense is already deploying additional troops.

You know, what - we'll see some activities like that go on in parallel and continue to happen. The messaging that we're hearing out of the administration about we welcome de-escalation makes us laugh at first. It seems silly to think that Iran would even consider that. But it's smart of the administration to put it out there - to say, hey, look - we took out a guy we've been watching for decades. We knew he was planning imminent attacks against our own people. We did just him. We're willing to stop now and call a freeze to the escalation if Iran is willing to.

We don't expect Iran to react that way. But I think it's important that the administration say we're not seeking further escalation. We would like to see things simmer down.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, to the degree that you feel comfortable - because I recognize that in your current role, you represent a number of analysts, and you speak for an institution - but I've been reading your various feeds about this and your blog posts about this, and I've not heard you expressing an opinion yourself about whether this strike was warranted or not. And do you feel comfortable saying, do you feel it was warranted or not?

FONTENROSE: Sure. I do. You know, just because of being so familiar with Qassem Soleimani's activities over time and with what he was capable of, I do think the strike was warranted. It would have been warranted at any point the last 10 years, to be honest. The question now was just whether or not it was strategic, whether or not the aftermath will create more difficulties than he would have created. I don't personally believe that's true. But I think that's the debate, not whether or not this man was deserving of his end.

MARTIN: But unlike Osama bin Laden, this was a state actor with a state position, a prominent governmental position. And all these questions of sovereignty are arising that were not the case with prior persons with a demonstrated record of terrorist activity. So even given that?

FONTENROSE: Yes. I say even given that. Remember, yes, he is in a government role, but his role is a role that we don't have an equivalent of in the U.S. or in most Western countries or, frankly, most countries around the world. The closest we can say would have been, you know, the Soviet Union had this shadow government that was the Communist Party that was as large and more powerful than their front-facing government. And that is essentially what Qassem Soleimani belonged to.

He was in a paramilitary force that responded to a clerical establishment that has 45,000 to 50,000 employees, billions of dollars in assets and really runs all foreign policy for Iran. The president that we routinely engage with, President Rouhani, is just a face figure. So we can't really equate him to anyone in our own system.

You know, you've got a theocracy in Iran, and you've got a thugocracy in Iran. And he was very much the leader of that thugocracy. His entire mission was to extend Iran's revolutionary zeal around the region and to bring countries to their knees so that Iran could exploit them in terms of foreign policy and resources. So we don't really have that. Just because Iran chose to make him an official doesn't say anything positive about him. It just says something negative about the way they choose to conduct foreign policy.

MARTIN: That was Kirsten Fontenrose. She is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. She served on President Trump's National Security Council at the White House.

Kristen Fontenrose, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today.

FONTENROSE: Thanks for having me. Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.