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What killing of top Iranian general means for nuclear deal and the U.S. in Middle East

For two views on the latest developments in Iran and Iraq, Nick Schifrin speaks with Narges Bajoghli of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, author of “Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic,” and U.S. diplomat Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassador to Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon and is now diplomat in residence at Princeton University.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we return to our top story in the ongoing tensions with Iran.

    Nick Schifrin is back with a look at where this stands three days after the killing of General Soleimani.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, we look at how the killing has impacted the region, and specifically Iran, Iraq and the U.S.

    And we get two views.

    Ryan Crocker had an almost-40-year career as an American diplomat. He served as an ambassador to Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon. He's now a diplomat in residence at Princeton University. He was unable to make it to a studio tonight and joins us on the phone. And Narges Bajoghli is a professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She's the author of "Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic."

    Welcome to you both. Thanks very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Narges Bajoghli, let me start with you.

    We heard from the Iranian ambassador to the U.N. earlier, Judy's interview, talking about how he's blaming European partners for not delivering enough for them to stay in the nuclear deal.

    Remind us, is this Iran closing the door on the nuclear deal?

  • Narges Bajoghli:

    Well, I think it's important.

    I actually thought that, after the assassination of Soleimani, that they would potentially completely pull out of the deal. What they announced on Sunday was interesting, because they haven't pulled out of the deal.

    And what they have decided to do is stay within the framework of the deal and make it so that as, actually, the ambassador said, if other parties to the deal come back to the table — he means mostly the United States — and lift sanctions against Iran, that they would be willing to go back to the full framework of the JCPOA.

    The reason that he's blaming the Europeans, though, in this is that, once the Trump administration began to impose maximum pressure, and especially the maximum sanctions against Iran, they were hoping that the Europeans would come to their aid and relieve some of those sanctions.

    And even though Europe has done the INSTEX and tried to create a special-purpose vehicle to get around it, it still has not really taken off. And so I think that that's part of the reason that they have been blaming the Europeans for this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Crocker, so, a little bit of ambiguity in how Iran is approaching this moment when it comes to the nuclear deal. But what are the implications of their further eroding the commitments that they once agreed to?

  • Ryan Crocker:

    I think that if Iran were to pursue its stated desire to pull out of the deal completely or to start violating all of its terms, they would be making a major strategic mistake.

    That will alienate the Europeans and many other countries around the world and serve to isolate Iran, at a time when they have said they are seeking international support against the United States for the killing of General Soleimani.

    So, from an American perspective, if they want to draw negative attention to them on this important nuclear matter, they're doing just the right thing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Narges Bajoghli, in terms of drawing attention or negative attention, as the ambassador just said, Iran has clearly been trying to have some positive attention on it accusing the U.S. of an unlawful assassination.

    And they have been trying to rally their supporters across the region. What's the impact of Soleimani's death on Iran across the region and on Iranian allies across the region?

  • Narges Bajoghli:

    Yes, I think the United States could not have made a bigger mistake as far as the person.

    The symbol of Soleimani is — what he represented inside Iran and what he represented to Shia communities across the Middle East, I think, is something that is extremely important.

    And that's one of the reasons, I think, that other American administrations, when they had the chance, didn't assassinate Soleimani.

    But especially since 2013 in the fight against ISIS, it's important to remember there was a very large media campaign created in Iran sort of lionizing Soleimani and his fight against ISIS, because, again, it must be reiterated that ISIS' main goal during its fight was to — and one of its main enemies — its main enemies was the Shia.

    So Soleimani was seen as this national figure who stayed above the politics of the country. So, even when Iranians were very much against the Islamic Republic and against a lot of the policies that the Islamic Republic has done, he was sort of seen as being above that and protecting the homeland from ISIS coming in.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Crocker, Soleimani did take on ISIS and was seen, of course, as a national figure inside Iran.

    But the Americans had a very different view of him, and certainly those American troops. But, also, diplomats who served in Iraq, like you, had a different view of him, I take it.

  • Ryan Crocker:

    The war between Iran and Iraq, if that's how we're styling it, didn't start with the killing of Qasem Soleimani. It started ages ago in the early '80s with his predecessors and their proxies.

    I was in Lebanon at the time and got to see up close and personal the bombing of the embassy. I was in it in 1983, again, brought to us by the — a predecessor of Soleimani and the militia that became Hezbollah.

    So, General Soleimani, for two decades, has been heading one of the most lethal operating arms of the state we have ever seen. He has the blood of hundreds of American troopers in Iraq on his hands.

    Again, I had to stand at those ramp ceremonies as we said a final goodbye to dead soldiers. So there's no question that he was a blood enemy, if you will.

    That — all of that said, we have to have a strategy here. This is a long war. It's gone on for years. It will go on for years more at an increased level, I think, after the Soleimani assassination.

    So the administration has to have a game plan. And that game plan will need to involve allies, a great deal of strategic patience, the utilization of some very smart people in the U.S. that know Iran and know how to work with others.

    None of these are hallmarks of this administration. So, I worry very much that, while taking a very bad actor off the field is not, in my view at least, inherently a bad thing, now what? And I'm not seeing any clear answers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Narges Bajoghli, what about for Iran? Now what? Where do they see this going? And how might they respond?

  • Narges Bajoghli:


    Look, a week ago, crowds like we saw the past two days in Iran were unthinkable, because people were so angry at the state for the way it had cracked down against protesters in November.

    What the killing of Soleimani has done is, it has brought together the population, in addition to not just his assassination, but also Trump's tweets about targeting Iranian cultural sites.

    So, what we do see in this, I think, in the future? This has been a gift to the survival of the Islamic Republic. I think what we will see in the future is that the Revolutionary Guard will focus its mission on trying to get the U.S. forces out of the Middle East.

    And it now has — and it has rallied forces, both within Iran and outside of the borders, to do so.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Ambassador, to you, quickly, in the time we have left.

    There have been some fears within administration officials even that I have talked to, not only fear of unity within Iran, as Narges Bajoghli just said, but also fear of U.S. troops getting evicted from Iraq because of this strike.

    How concerned are you about that?

  • Ryan Crocker:

    I think the question of the U.S. presence in Iraq has a ways to play.

    The parliamentary resolution was not binding. And the session was boycotted by most Sunni and Kurdish deputies. There is no unanimity on the issue of U.S. presence in Iraq, partly because they know how crucial we were to the eviction of the Islamic State.

    So, I think it's time for a pause. Everybody, take a deep breath and see where we can go with this diplomatically. And I also think it's very important for the administration to do what it can to take Iraq out of the middle.

    Their president has — the Iraqi president has…


  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador, I'm told that — I'm sorry, Ambassador. I'm sorry to cut you off there, but I'm told we're out of time. So, I will just have to thank you there.

    Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Narges Bajoghli, thank you very much.

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