News Brief: Iran Missile Attack, Ukrainian Airliner Crashes In Iran
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Iran's retaliation for the killing of a top commander came early Wednesday morning. More than a dozen ballistic missiles targeted two military bases in Iraq that housed U.S. and coalition forces.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Pentagon has not yet released any reports about casualties or damage. Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, called the strikes an act of self-defense. The attack comes less than a week after a U.S. drone strike killed Iran's top commander, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq. Iran had vowed to avenge that attack.
GREENE: Our colleague, Mary Louise Kelly, who hosts NPR's All Things Considered, has been reporting in Tehran and joins us. Hi, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, David. Good morning, Rachel.
GREENE: How are people there reacting to these missile strikes?
KELLY: So it is all over the news here, as you would imagine. I was flipping through Iranian state TV channels this morning, and they are all showing footage of this. There's commentary on screen about it. You know, people here are trying to process what has happened, what it means. I will say, I went downstairs in our hotel for breakfast this morning. And the waiter, as he was making me an egg and serving coffee, was saying, did you see what happened overnight?
And it actually took me a minute to think, is he talking about the missile strikes? Is he talking about this stampede in which dozens of people died in the hometown of Soleimani as mourners were out following the funeral procession? Is he talking about this awful plane crash this morning where a jetliner went down at Tehran airport?
It has been an extraordinary 24 hours of news here in Iran. And I will say, on the missile strikes specifically, I think the general sense is, OK, this has happened. Iran has taken a step to retaliate for the killing of Soleimani. And now everyone is watching to see what might the response from the U.S., from the White House, be.
GREENE: Well, it's so interesting. You say taken a step. I mean, was this the step that is retaliation? Or could this be the beginning for Iran in terms of a response?
KELLY: That is the question, right? Is this it? Or is there more coming from Iran? The state news media here, at least one outlet is characterizing these missile attacks as the start of the promised revenge. This is the official ISNA media outlet, which is carrying a statement from Iran's Revolutionary Guards, hard-liners. And it says - and I'll quote - "we are warning the U.S. that if they take any further action, they will receive a harsher response."
Also we heard, for the first time, the first public speech from the supreme leader here, Ayatollah Khamenei. He spoke today in the holy city of Qom. Let me let you hear this.
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ALI KHAMENEI: (Through interpreter) These nonsense-telling (ph) Americans, but the Iranian nation...
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).
KHAMENEI: ...(Through interpreter) Gave a huge blow to their mouth.
KELLY: You can hear, David, the chanting behind him, the crowd reacting...
KELLY: ...As he's describing these missile attacks as a huge blow to the mouth. He also elsewhere in his speech today said - he suggested that more may come. He said Iran's goal is the U.S. needs to get out of the Middle East entirely. An official translation of that part of his remarks reads, the corrupt presence of the United States in this region should come to an end.
GREENE: So that's the supreme leader. You actually had a chance to talk to Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, yesterday. I mean, did he give you any clues in terms of what Iran's plans might be?
KELLY: I did. I sat down with him and interviewed him for about 10 minutes yesterday. He was cagey when I asked directly what Iran's revenge might look like. He said Iran will respond at a time and a manner of its choosing. And, of course, we have since seen these missile attacks on military bases in Iraq.
Since then - and this is significant, as Zarif has tweeted, he tweets, we do not seek escalation or war. But as you noted in the intro, he also said, we will defend ourselves against any aggression. That is maybe a hint that the government of Iran, at least, the elected leaders and the foreign ministry that serve them, maybe they are looking to de-escalate this.
GREENE: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly in Tehran. Mary Louise, thanks so much for covering all of the news that you mentioned.
KELLY: (Laughter) Much news to cover here. Thanks, David.
GREENE: All right. So far, the country most affected by these escalating tensions between the United States and Iran has actually been Iraq.
MARTIN: Right. So as we said, the missile attack launched by Iran hit two military bases that housed U.S. forces. These bases, though, are in Iraq. Friday's U.S. drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander, this took place near Baghdad's airport. Also it's important to remember that an Iraqi militia leader was also killed in that strike. The Iraqi Parliament over the weekend passed this resolution calling on the government there to expel all foreign troops from the country.
GREENE: A lot to talk about here with NPR's Jane Arraf, who is in Baghdad. Hi, Jane.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi there.
GREENE: OK. So listening to Mary Louise there, she gave us, you know, the Iranian version of what these missile strikes may have meant. She mentioned a lot of people there waiting to see if the United States now responds. So what is the United States saying? And what is Iraq saying about what's happened here?
ARRAF: Well, a slight difference between what Iraq and the U.S. are saying what happened during this rocket attack. The U.S. says more than a dozen rockets were fired. Iraq says more than 22 were fired. The Iraqi government has just put out a statement from the prime minister saying that they did get notice from the Iranian government as they were about to launch this. They said they did not tell them what the targets would be, but told them they would be Iranian targets. And they called for de-escalation.
The prime minister said he was very worried this was a prelude to all-out war. But the unusual thing about this is with all of those rocket attacks, including on a target such as the airport - the military side of the airport in Irbil - there were no casualties reported. So people here are wondering whether Iran deliberately tried to avoid causing casualties to de-escalate this even as it was launching retaliation.
GREENE: Trying, maybe, to de-escalate, as Mary Louise was talking about. Well, speaking of that - I mean, as we wait to see what the United States may do, what are they expecting? Is there a likelihood of a U.S. response in the minds of people on the ground in Baghdad?
ARRAF: Well, Trump seemed to welcome how this all went. He put out a tweet saying, all is well. It could have certainly been worse had there been casualties given the number of rockets. The feeling among some Iraqi politicians here is that Iran was indeed looking for a way to be seen as retaliating but not so strongly that it would risk further retaliation.
But here's the problem - it isn't just Iran and the U.S. that are now in this equation. It is Iran-backed militias here. And one of them - one of the major Iran-backed militias put out a statement saying, this is just the start. Iran has started the revenge and the militia itself will continue. Not all of these militias are under complete control of Iran. And they're certainly not under control of the Iraqi government. So that's an added worry here.
GREENE: And just thinking about Iraq here, I mean, in the middle of all of this. I mean, Iraq is nominally allied with both of these countries, Iran and the United States, right? So how is Iraq responding to this violence in terms of what it could mean for those delicate relationships?
ARRAF: So this is kind of a nightmare because this has been Iraq's biggest fear, that it's caught in a battle between these two superpowers. And we have to remember that Iraqis went through an eight-year-long war with Iran during the 1980s. They remember Iranian rockets raining down. So it's not a natural affinity between all Iraqis and Iran. And it is a very delicate relationship. And people are treading very carefully and hoping it doesn't escalate further.
GREENE: NPR's Jane Arraf reporting for us in Baghdad. Thanks, Jane.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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MARTIN: OK. We now want to pick up on this other story out of Iran that Mary Louise mentioned earlier, actually. This passenger plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran's international airport today.
GREENE: Right. So this aircraft, it was a Boeing 737 operated by Ukraine International Airlines. It disappeared from the radar only minutes after it took off for this flight from Tehran to Kyiv. A video that has been circulating widely on social media seems to show this plane on fire before exploding into this huge fireball.
And we should say, NPR has not confirmed the authenticity of that video. Iranian authorities said that the cause of the crash remains under investigation. We do know that all 176 passengers and crew on board this plane are dead.
MARTIN: Journalist Charles Maynes has been following the story from Moscow. Charles, thanks for being with us. Can you just give us whatever you know, what details are coming out from the crash site?
CHARLES MAYNES: Yeah. Sure. As you know, it's 176 dead, although we've seen some varying numbers through the morning from different news agencies. But the point is there are no survivors. Iranian rescue workers are on the ground attempting to recover remains that are scattered among the wreckage. It's no easy task, as you might imagine.
About the crash itself, Iranian emergency ministry officials say it's due to technical error. They say the engine burned up in the plane. And as David mentioned, they know there's this witness video that's been circulating online - of course, not verified - but it appears to show, anyway, a plane on fire and losing altitude before hitting the ground in a massive explosion.
MARTIN: So just to be clear - I mean, given the missile attacks from Iran on U.S. troops in Iraq and all the news in the region, is there any suggestion that this was anything other than a technical tragedy, really?
MAYNES: Well, Iran says it's not. And the Ukrainians seem to be backing them up so far. The Ukrainian Embassy in Tehran said it had ruled out terrorism as a cause of the crash and that the preliminary information did indeed show the crash was caused by engine failure. But, of course, as you say, this comes just hours after Iran launched these missiles at American bases in Iraq.
It was interesting to see that Jordanian state media issued a statement that, despite the reports of a technical error, said the plane had, in fact, been brought down by missile. There's nothing really to back that up. But as it happens, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is in Jordan right now on an official visit. He's been posting to Facebook all morning, first offering condolences and then saying he, in fact, had ordered a criminal investigation into the crash and that all theories were still on the table.
One other thing to note is that major airlines say they'll avoid flying over Iranian and Iraqi airspace at this point. The FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S., has issued a ban. And Russia's aviation agency here in Moscow issued a similar recommendation.
MARTIN: And we're getting reports that there were dozens of Canadians on board this plane, also a lot of Iranian nationals. What do we know about the plane itself? This was a Boeing 737, not a 737 MAX, which is the kind of aircraft that we've - that had so many problems responsible for other tragedies. But what can you tell us about the plane and the airline?
MAYNES: Well, right. As you note, this plane was - it's, in fact, just 3 1/2 years old. It's a 737-800 NG model, not the MAX, as you note. The airline issued a statement noting that they brought the aircraft direct from Boeing in 2016. And its last scheduled maintenance was actually took place just two days ago on January 6. So, of course, a lot of questions as to what happened here, if indeed it was a tech issue.
MARTIN: Journalist Charles Maynes reporting from Moscow. Charles, thank you so much.
MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.