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Why the U.S. military targeted Qassam Soleimani — and how Iran might react

How is Iran likely to react to the American military strike that killed top general Qassem Soleimani -- and how well prepared is the U.S. to withstand that response? Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and retired Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, join Nick Schifrin to discuss Soleimani's role and how Iran will adapt without him.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One question now, how may Iran respond to today's American military strike, and how well-prepared is the U.S. military to withstand Iran's retaliation?

    Nick Schifrin is back with more on that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We now get two views from people who watch or have dealt with Iran over the years.

    Retired Admiral Michael Mullen was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, at a time when the U.S. significantly increased the number of troops in Iraq and the war in Iraq intensified. And here with me is Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a global bipartisan think tank.

    Welcome back to you both to the "NewsHour." Thank you very much.

    Karim Sadjadpour, let me start with you.

    How irreplaceable is Qasem Soleimani?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Well, Nick, Iran is the only country in the world which is simultaneously fighting three proxy wars with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

    And Soleimani has been managing these proxy wars for the last two decades. He has been leading Iran's fight in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. And he had very effectively built up a Shiite foreign legion to project Iranian power throughout the Middle East.

    He was a figure who was widely respected within the Iranian regime and with Iran's regional allies. If you talk to U.S. military commanders, they would say he's enemy number one for the United States, far greater than al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, Baghdadi, and others.

    So I would say he's as close to being irreplaceable to Iran as any other individual in that regime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Admiral Mullen, do you believe he is as irreplaceable as anyone is in Iran, outside of the leaders of the country itself?

  • Michael Mullen:

    Well, it's not a perfect comparison, Nick, but I do agree.

    I think the loss of Soleimani is the equivalent of the loss of bin Laden or Baghdadi to the organization in which each of them — in which each of them represents.

    And Soleimani has been a brilliant strategist. He has been the controlling entity inside Iran for two decades. And this is a huge loss for the national security apparatus inside Iran.

    I know we often talk, someone will come in behind him. I'm sure that. But it will not be somebody that has the same kind of capability as Soleimani. So it's good riddance to him after a long period of time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I'm reminded that Soleimani would go to — could go to Moscow, could go to Beirut, could go to Damascus.

    Karim Sadjadpour, the fact that he could do that means that Iran has the ability to respond across the region, as you said, a foreign legion of Shia militia groups. What's the most likely Iranian response, given how high-profile, given how important he was to the country?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Well, the regime has to respond, or else they will lose face. But if they respond excessively, they could risk losing their heads.

    And for the Iranian regime, what is paramount is their own survival. Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, is 80 years old. He's been ruling for 30 years. He's not a gambler.

    I think that Iran has plenty of means at its disposal to respond, both regionally and internationally. They like to operate via proxy. They like to have plausible deniability. These days, in the era of drones and cyberattacks, they will be sure to employ that.

    And we know the old expression that revenge is a dish best served cold. I don't think that they're not likely to launch all hell in the next 48 hours. But this is going to be a sustained proxy war against the United States and U.S. allies for many months to come.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And even more intense than it already is?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    More intense, certainly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Admiral Mullen, I want to come back to something that you said, the fact that Soleimani has been kind of the controlling entity for two decades for some of these efforts that Iran — take me back to your time as chairman.

    You served both in the Bush administration, at the end of it, and into the Obama administration. In both of those administrations, there were opportunities to kill Soleimani. Why were those opportunities not taken back then?

  • Michael Mullen:

    I think the — the target list, if you will, in those — in those times didn't include Soleimani. And that's different from the terrorist organizations of al-Qaida in Iraq and ISIS over time.

    That said, he was somebody that we kept a very close eye on and knew where he was and still felt, the sooner he was gone, the better. I think the fact that he's a government representative, an official, spent a lot of time obviously in Iran.

    So it's a different approach in terms of assassinating somebody. In this case, he's a military commander on the ground in Iraq with what appears to be exquisite intelligence on our part. And he's planning to kill more Americans. He's a legitimate target now.

    And for that — those reasons, actually, I'm very supportive of taking him out. I recognize there's significant risk here. I think the Trump administration, since it left the nuclear deal, has been ratcheting it up. I worry that there's no off-ramp for Iran, and there's no off-ramp for the U.S. for a diplomatic solution.

    So the risks are high. I just think, from the standpoint of eliminating somebody who really was the strategic link for — for Iran's national security was, at this particular point, worth that risk.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Karim Sadjadpour, there are critics of this strike.

    And as, Admiral Mullen says, one of them is about escalation. But he also brought up the nuclear deal. On Monday, Iran has promised to step away a little bit more from the Iran nuclear deal. Could they actually do even something more dramatic when it comes to nuclear for a response?

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Well, I will expect Iran to put its foot on the accelerator again in the nuclear context.

    Now, they're very careful not to go from zero to 100. They will try to go from zero to 20. The goal is to really further split the international community. They're not going to announce that they're moving full speed ahead for a bomb, something that would unite China, Russia and Europe with the Trump administration.

    They want to move deliberately, in a way that the world will essentially blame the Trump administration for provoking Iran, rather than blaming Iran. And so they will restart their nuclear program. They will continue to launch proxy attacks on the region.

    And, pretty soon, there will be pressure from Israel. As Iran is inching towards nuclear weapons capability, there will be pressure from Israel on the United States to take preemptive military action.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Admiral Mullen, you mentioned no off-ramp.

    In the time we have left, how concerned are you about the chances of escalation, the cycle of escalation, and the fact, as you put it, that there is no off-ramp to that escalation right now?

  • Michael Mullen:

    It's been very difficult to see what the endgame is for the Trump administration with respect to Iran, and specifically the diplomatic channel that needs to be created, so that we can both step down from this ladder, if you will, before something really bad happens.

    We are in a situation where escalation has taken place. And, in that, miscalculation can take place, in which case it could really, really result in a disastrous outcome and another war in the Middle East, which is the last thing in the world we need.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And a war that President Trump has promised not to actually get into, right?

  • Michael Mullen:

    He has.

    But it's very clear — and this strike is an example — that he will — he will take action to defend U.S. interests and U.S. citizens. So it's — I mean, the options or the space to maneuver here is just getting smaller and smaller.

    Someone needs to take a step to get us off this path before something really bad happens.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment, here with me, thank you very much to both.

  • Karim Sadjadpour:

    Thanks, Nick.

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