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

Words and actions between the U.S. and Iran are escalating. On Sunday, U.S. military strikes on an Iraqi militia group backed by Iran killed 25 fighters in what the U.S. said was retaliation for rocket fire that killed an American defense contractor. Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, and Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University join Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • 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 (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:

    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:

    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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