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U.S. reveals potential Iranian threat but downplays North Korean missile test

Somewhat ominous developments have occurred recently around two flashpoints of American foreign policy: Iran and North Korea. On Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced a carrier strike group was moving into the Persian Gulf because of unspecified threatening action, purportedly from Iran. Meanwhile, North Korea conducted a missile test. William Brangham talks to Nick Schifrin.

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  • William Brangham:

    This weekend saw new and somewhat foreboding developments relating to two flash points of American foreign policy, Iran and North Korea.

    We will get to North Korea and its missile launch in a moment, but, first, last night, an unusual statement from National Security Adviser John Bolton announced that a carrier strike group was being moved into the Persian Gulf because of unspecified threatening actions by Iran.

    Here to unpack all of this is foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin.


    So, the U.S. says, we have got this response we have to have against Iran. What is it exactly are we deploying there?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So you mentioned it, a carrier striker.

    This is the USS Abraham Lincoln and about a half-dozen other ships. And the carrier strike group that sails together really is one of the most visible and potent, frankly, aspects of U.S. military might.

    Alongside that is a bomber task force, a collection of B-1 or B-52 bombers. And what we saw from National Security Adviser John Bolton in that unusual statement last night — and, by the way, it's unusual not only when it came out, but also the fact that the national security adviser announced military movements like this.

    He said this was designed to send a clear and unmistakable message that any attack will be met with — quote — "unrelenting force."

    So military officials I spoke to today say that the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group was on the way to the Middle East, but this advanced that by a few weeks, so they will get there earlier. And the Air Force officials we spoke to today say they're still figuring out exactly which planes will get there when, but this will increase their lethality in the region.

    So, bottom line, as one military official put this, this is a significant and important deterrence against Iran. And as one regional diplomat told me, this is really a new phase in the U.S. campaign against Iran in the region.

  • William Brangham:

    As you mentioned, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo over the last few days have said, we have got this evidence that Iran is up to something, and that's why we have to act.

    What evidence are they citing?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So the U.S. officials I'm speaking to cite a few things generally. They say that these are threats to U.S. assets in the region, specifically the Persian Gulf, and the U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.

    And those are two countries that Iran has threatened for working with the United States as part of the U.S.' maximum pressure campaign against Iran. The Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers came out just a few hours ago and said specifically that there's heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against U.S. forces. So there's also a threat against U.S. forces, according to the Pentagon.

  • William Brangham:

    Has there been any criticism of this move?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There are a few criticisms.

    I spoke with many Iran experts today, and they specifically said they're not sure they can trust John Bolton, the national security adviser, when he said cites this intelligence. Bolton has been criticized in the past for manipulating intelligence, including by some of his allies.

    And also he has consistently talked about regime change in Iran. And that leads to criticism number two. Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, has talked about the U.S. increasing the chances of confrontation.

    And some Democratic senators came out today and said, this is a drumbeat to war. We worry that the administration is repeating what the U.S. did before Iraq in 2003.

    The U.S. says, the administration says, people I'm talking to say and Bolton specifically says, we are not looking for war. The Pentagon said today, we are not looking for war.

    But the fact is, the tensions are increasing and the U.S. is increasing its military president in the region.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, we know that, from day one of the Trump administration, they have been, as you say, exerting a maximum force campaign against Iran. Given that, where does this recent move fit into that context?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, this — it will be one year almost exactly, on Wednesday, that the U.S. pulled out of the Iran deal.

    In the last month, the U.S. has labeled Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC, a terrorist organization, and it has sanctioned every country in the world that will continue to import Iranian oil.

    The U.S. says that this maximum pressure is to try to get Iran to the table again, and/or to really significantly weaken the government and the economy. So far, Iran has not responded to any of these in any kind of dramatic way.

    And it is still abiding by the restrictions imposed on it by the nuclear deal. But what U.S. officials are worried about right now is that Iran may decide to take a dramatic step or even perhaps a violent response in the region.

    And U.S. and European officials are talking about fearing that Iran will restart one of its enrichment programs, possibly. And so this is a tense moment. And, frankly, William, it's going to get even tenser.

    U.S. officials tell me they will in impose more sanctions on Iran on Wednesday. Iran is promising to unveil some kind of response or some kind of new announcement on Wednesday for the Iran nuclear deal anniversary. And so, really, we are in a cycle of confrontation right now.

  • William Brangham:

    OK, let's shift gears a little bit.

    North Korea late Friday night, we saw them launch a missile, this coming in the context, of course, of these repeated Trump-Kim summits where we're trying to denuclearize that country.

    How significant is that launch from Friday?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So U.S. officials tell me this is not a new missile. And you heard from the president this weekend over Twitter and his senior aides all weekend saying that, look, this is not a big deal.

    They downplayed it. And they downplayed it because they said it's not an ICBM, not an intercontinental ballistic missile. Therefore, it couldn't threaten the United States. And, therefore, it also wasn't a break of Kim Jong-un's promise not to test an ICBM.

    But — there's a lot of buts. This is the first launch in more than 500 days. So it's significant, just in and of itself. Even if this missile can't threaten the U.S., it can threaten U.S. allies, like Japan and South Korea. And it is a violation, by the way, of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

    And it may not break Kim Jong-un's promise not to test ICBMs. But it does break his promise not to increase tensions with South Korea. And that is a promise that he has made.

  • William Brangham:

    So what message is North Korea trying to send with this launch?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's an internal message to its own people and also to officials who might be skeptical of diplomacy with the United States that: We can still be tough.

    And there's an external message. One is expressing frustration and also sending a warning. The North Koreans have been upset by U.S.-South Korean exercises, including using surface-to-air defense platform called THAAD that was recently done.

    And they're also upset there's been no diplomatic progress. The president walked away from the table basically in Hanoi, saying that the deal that North Korea was offering was not good enough. And North Korean experts we spoke today say — told us, the message is that North Korea wants some diplomatic movement.

    North Korea still has a robust weapons program. It's trying to remind the U.S. of that and a reminder of the U.S. that the North Koreans still have military options moving forward.

  • William Brangham:

    Nick Schifrin, thanks for bringing us up to speed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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