ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Four days after the U.S. killed a top Iranian general, here's the state of play. Mourners have flooded the streets of Tehran, Iran's government has vowed revenge. And President Trump said today if Iran retaliates, the U.S. will fight back.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're prepared. We're totally prepared. And likewise, we're prepared to attack if we have to as retribution.
SHAPIRO: And then this evening, the Department of Defense said Iran has launched more than a dozen missiles from Iran, targeting at least two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. forces. NPR is following that story, and we will continue to bring you updates. Earlier today, I spoke with Ambassador Brian Hook. He is the U.S. special representative for Iran.
Thanks for joining us.
BRIAN HOOK: Good to be with you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Your boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has said there is secret intelligence about an imminent threat to Americans and that that is why Trump decided to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Have you yourself seen this intelligence?
HOOK: Yes, I did see the intelligence.
SHAPIRO: Can you tell us what the imminent threat was?
HOOK: Well, this is a highly compartmented intelligence, and any time - we, obviously, try to share intelligence as much as we can, but we also can't compromise sources and methods.
SHAPIRO: But can you give us any more information?
HOOK: Tomorrow Secretary Pompeo will be meeting with the Congress and sharing as much intelligence as we can with Congress. But please know that everybody in the president's national security cabinet saw the intelligence, and there was agreement among all of his advisers that the risks of not doing anything far exceeded the risks of taking out Qassem Soleimani.
SHAPIRO: You must understand why there is skepticism when any administration says, trust us.
HOOK: Well, in this case, the intelligence was clear. And the president's first responsibility as commander in chief is to save American lives, and he took decisive action. Remember. Qassem Soleimani has killed over 600 Americans.
SHAPIRO: And yet The Washington Post points out...
HOOK: And so when he is in the region plotting imminent attacks against American diplomats and American soldiers, it would have been negligent not to take action.
SHAPIRO: The Washington Post points out that he was a general with thousands of people in his employ, and whatever operations he might have been planning can go right ahead without him. Are they wrong?
HOOK: If we had not taken action and hundreds of Americans were killed, we would be having a conversation now where you would be asking me, why didn't we take out Qassem Soleimani?
SHAPIRO: Well, what I'm asking is, what was the imminent threat? What was - what can you tell us beyond, take our word for it?
HOOK: You can look at what the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said publicly. They said that Qassem Soleimani was in the region, plotting attacks. And so he was in - he left Iran. He is under a travel ban by the United Nations. He has been designated as a terrorist by the European Union, the United States and the United Nations. And he was planning attacks against American diplomats.
SHAPIRO: All right, let's move on. We've heard many top officials in the administration say that the goal is de-escalation. Today Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif spoke with our colleague Mary Louise Kelly in Tehran, and Zarif said this about Soleimani's killing.
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JAVAD ZARIF: This was an act of aggression, an armed attack - albeit a cowardly armed attack - against an Iranian official in foreign territory. It amounts to war, and we will respond according to our own timing and choice.
SHAPIRO: How do you de-escalate from here?
HOOK: Well, first of all, Javad Zarif is famous for his mendacity. What he said is not true. Iran has threatened and attacked Americans and others for years. Just in recent months, they shot down an American unmanned aircraft. They destroyed oil infrastructure in Saudi. They attacked ships in the Strait of Hormuz. And then on December 27, Iranian-supported militias killed an American. They also orchestrated the terrorist attack on our embassy in Baghdad.
HOOK: And they have been plotting to kill many more Americans.
SHAPIRO: And so to the question of de-escalation...
HOOK: And so this was a defensive action, and we will continue to take all necessary defensive actions to protect American lives.
SHAPIRO: This week, the State Department refused to give Zarif a visa to travel to New York and speak with the United Nations. If de-escalation is the U.S. goal here, why not allow Iran to engage in a dialogue at the U.N.?
HOOK: Well, the foreign ministry was very late submitting its visa request, and that's really a question for the Foreign Ministry in Tehran.
SHAPIRO: So you're saying it's just the lateness. It had nothing to do with the Soleimani escalation.
HOOK: There are procedures that need to be followed for these kinds of visits to the United Nations, and they were not complied with.
SHAPIRO: I wonder about allies who have supported the U.S. in the past who are now distancing themselves from the U.S. Iraq's parliament voted to expel U.S. troops. NATO and Canada are moving troops out of Iraq for their safety. Today the chair of Germany's Foreign Relations Committee told NPR that the killing of Soleimani has caused the greatest Middle East crisis for decades. Can the U.S. achieve its goals in the region without the support of allies it has depended on in the past?
HOOK: I think we do have the support of allies. Yesterday, I addressed NATO. NATO very strongly supports our decisions to act in self-defense. The United Kingdom, France and Germany have all supported America's inherent right of self-defense. It's not just the United States that is in Iraq. There are coalition forces. Many of them are NATO countries. And the Iraqi government has the responsibility to ensure the safety of all forces in Iraq. And so I have seen nothing but support for what we've done in terms of protecting our embassy, protecting our troops and preventing terrorism.
SHAPIRO: Ambassador Brian Hook is the U.S. Special Representative for Iran. Thank you for speaking with us today.
HOOK: Thanks, Ari.
SHAPIRO: And NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen is on the line. She has been listening to the conversation. Michele, put the ambassador's words into context for us. What stood out to you in his remarks?
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, one of the things we really haven't heard from this administration is a clear diplomatic path going forward - you know, an off-ramp. You know, if you say this is about de-escalating, what are you going to do to de-escalate? Remember, Ari, that the U.S. and Iran do not have diplomatic relations. A Swiss diplomat represents U.S. interests in Tehran, and we've heard that that diplomat has passed some messages. But the sense that we're getting is that the U.S. message is what Trump has been saying publicly. You know, we took this in self-defense. Now, if you respond, we're going to retaliate, too. And that's not exactly de-escalating.
SHAPIRO: So a stated desire to de-escalate without a path for de-escalation. We heard the State Department view just there - that Soleimani was an imminent threat and that that was why the U.S. killed him. Are American allies in Europe and elsewhere satisfied with what they are hearing from the U.S. about this?
KELEMEN: I think there's a lot of nervousness. You know, President Trump also said that he's heard support privately for this. He talked today to Germany's chancellor. But you're also seeing Europeans calling for de-escalation. That's the word that they keep repeating over and over again. The French president called Iran's president to talk about that today, you know, looking for pathways to not allow this to get out of hand. And Europeans are also repositioning their troops that were in Iraq to train Iraqi combat forces to fight ISIS. You know, that training mission has been suspended, and international troops are really now bracing themselves for a possible retaliation.
SHAPIRO: That is NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.
Thanks a lot, Michele.
KELEMEN: Thank you.
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