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Foreign policy experts weigh in on Trump’s Iran strategy

The U.S. killing of one of Iran’s top military leaders has prompted questions about whether the Trump administration has an effective strategy for Iran, Iraq and the larger Middle East. As Iran announces it has fired missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, Nick Schifrin talks to Mara Karlin of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Hudson Institute’s Michael Doran.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now a return to our top story.

    The killing of one of Iran's top military leaders has raised the question, does the Trump administration have an effective strategy for Iran, Iraq and the broader Middle East?

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin picks it up from there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, at this hour, there are developing reports of rocket attacks on a U.S. base in Iraq.

    The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps says this attack is in retaliation for the killing of Qasem Soleimani.

    As we follow that story, we also want to zoom out to talk about the overall strategy toward Iran in the Middle East with two people who know the region well.

    Mara Karlin worked at the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration and was appointed to a senior position during the Obama administration. She's now director of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And Michael Doran was senior director for the Middle East on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration and is now a senior fellow at The Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

    Mara Karlin, let me start with you.

    I guess I have to get your response. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is taking credit for these attacks and saying that these are rocket attacks from Iran into Iraq at U.S. bases. Could we get your response?

  • Mara Karlin:

    Yes, this is probably the first event that we will see of a slew of others, Nick.

    The U.S. set a new bar by killing Qasem Soleimani, who we can all agree was a horrific human being, who was catastrophic for U.S. national security interest. But, in killing him, as I said, it's a new bar, and now the Iranians are starting to retaliate. And I suspect we will see a whole lot more in and around the region over the coming days, weeks, and potentially months.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Doran, some of the critics of this attack, as you know well, were worried about a cycle of escalation happening after this attack.

    Do you have that worry, especially now, as we see, as Mara Karlin says, perhaps the first of a few attacks from Iran?

  • Michael Doran:

    Well, it didn't start with the attack on Qasem Soleimani.

    The Iranians have been escalating in a very deliberate fashion since last April, deliberate, but incremental. And that escalation ended up with the killing of an American. Now we have a new level of escalation, where they're attacking us from Iran.

    We have no choice now whatsoever. We're under attack. This is war. We have no choice but to win the escalation ladder.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mara Karlin, are you worried about, as Michael Doran just said, the escalation ladder? And do we have no choice? Do we just have to simply keep climbing the ladder, so to speak?

  • Mara Karlin:

    It's profoundly concerning.

    This has been going on for a while. Both the U.S. and the Iranians have taken a wide variety of escalatory steps. But hitting someone so senior in the Iranian national security apparatus is an entirely different ball game.

    It is still unclear why the U.S. hit Soleimani where they hit him and when they hit him. And I fear that we are going to spin further out of control, without a whole lot of clarity as to why.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Doran, do you believe that the Trump administration has clarity as to why they hit Qasem Soleimani and why this escalation is OK?

  • Michael Doran:

    Oh, absolutely.

    The Iranians had made a decision, Qasem Soleimani was implementing it, to throw the United States out of Iraq. That's why they were attacking our bases. That's why they killed an American there. And that's why they attacked the embassy.

    And we saw it with our own eyes, what was happening. Those militias on the ground in Iraq are armed, trained, equipped, and controlled by Iran. Everyone knows that. It's not — what Trump said to the Iranians is, we're not going to play this game anymore where you hit us with militias and we respond against the militias.

    We know that you're doing it. And we're going to respond to you.

    This is not something that Donald Trump brought on the United States. The Iranians have been fighting this war against us now since last April.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mara Karlin, what about that, the idea that by President Trump, by killing Soleimani, has essentially restored deterrence on Iran and that this was Iran's escalation long before the U.S. escalated?

  • Mara Karlin:

    Look, this is a story that lasts years, to put it lightly, but it is pretty clear that the U.S. and the Iranians are now in a tit-for-tat escalatory spiral.

    It is hard to imagine how this turns out well. And, frankly, Soleimani is probably spinning with delight in his grave. If one of his goals was to push the U.S. military out of Iraq, it appears as though he may be getting that wish sooner, rather than later.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Doran, you argued before that Iran was controlling a lot of these militias in Iraq, but, of course, the U.S. military has great influence over the Iraqi military. It is training the Iraqi military and fighting alongside the Iraqi military with ISIS.

    But, at this point, right now, the prime minister of Iraq is suggesting that the U.S. leave. Are you concerned that the prime minister has said the U.S. should leave Iraq in response to the U.S. decision to kill Qasem Soleimani?

  • Michael Doran:

    Well, the prime minister is a lame-duck, and until — there is a constitutional crisis in Iraq right now. Until we have a new government in place, the statements that he's making don't really matter.

    And the key question is not whether we stay in Iraq or not. We're under attack as we speak from the IRGC firing missiles from Iran at an American base. So, the question isn't anymore what the prime minister of Iraq is saying, what the half of the Parliament is saying.

    The question is, what are we going to do about this direct attack on American forces from the Iranians? And there is no choice here whatsoever. If we're to achieve any of our goals in the Middle East, then we have to demonstrate to the world and to the Iranians that they cannot treat us like this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mara Karlin, is that how you see it? Is the response from the Iraqi prime minister less important right now? And does the U.S. simply need to respond again back where we were, kind of raising up on that escalatory ladder?

  • Mara Karlin:

    Nick, the conversation is completely changed because of this attack.

    The U.S. and Iraq are divided. The U.S. is divided from its European allies. Iran has been facing the largest protests in 40 years. That is off the headlines. The fight against the Islamic State is now on hold, at best.

    It is a little bit hard to figure out how, as Mike is saying, any sort of deterrent could be restored.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mike, what about that?

    The coalition in Iraq did acknowledge that the fight against ISIS was on hold. There have been other side effects of Qasem Soleimani's death. Are you worried about all of that affecting things as the U.S. decides how to respond tonight?

  • Michael Doran:

    The greatest strategic threat that the United States has faced in the Middle East for the last decade is the rise of Iran across the region, the proliferation of these militias across the Arab world, the distribution to those militias of precision-guided weaponry, and the effort of Iran to use those new positions to undermine the American security system in the region.

    If we're going to stay in this region, and if we're going to lead this region, then we have to demonstrate that we cannot be pushed around by Iran in this way.

    If we're going to — if we're ever going to achieve an Iran without nuclear weapons, which four presidents have said is absolutely unacceptable, then we have to win this round and we have to win it decisively. There is no other choice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mara Karlin, in the 45 seconds or so that we have left, Mike Doran brings up that Iran has been spreading missiles throughout the region.

    This, however, is a response, apparently, from Iran itself, from the Revolutionary Guard. Just explain that significance and how important and how fraught this moment is.

  • Mara Karlin:

    Absolutely.

    We are in probably the most tense moment that the U.S. has been in the Middle East for decades, to put it lightly, I mean, easily since the Iraq invasion.

    What's particularly ironic, however, is that the Trump administration has continued to be, like previous administrations before it, embroiled in Middle East purgatory. Its strategy of focusing on China, focusing on the real geopolitical challenges, on great power competition, are invariably going to melt away as the Middle East continues to surge to the top of the priority list.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Doran, just in the last few seconds that I have, can you just respond to that, please?

  • Michael Doran:

    The United States is much more powerful than Iran. Iran is like a puffer fish. It look powerful because of these militias with these precision-guided weapons and because of its boldness.

    It's suffering an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy at home. Its position in Iraq has been challenged by protesters on the ground who want Iran out of Iraq. It is behaving in this aggressive fashion in order to look much stronger than it is.

    We can best this adversary with relative ease.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Doran from The Hudson Institute, Mara Karlin from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, thanks very much to you both.

  • Mara Karlin:

    Thank you.

  • Michael Doran:

    Thank you.

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