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IU Experts Talk About Recent Events Between The U.S. And Iran

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>>BOB ZALTSBERG: From the Milton Metz studio and I U's radio TV building, this is Noon Edition on WFIU. I'm Bob Zaltsberg from the WFIU WTIU news team, and this week we're talking to IU experts about recent events between the United States and Iran and that occurred in Iraq, and how they've affected the country's relationships and potentially the world. My co-host today is one of our newest reporters here at WFIU WTIu, George Hale. George spent eight years as a reporter and editor in the Middle East. We'll be talking with three very distinguished guests today and very happy to welcome them here. Feisal al-Istrabadi is the director of Indiana University's Center for the Study of the Middle East. He's a professor of practice. Lee Feinstein is dean of the Indiana University Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Affairs, and Hussein Banai is an assistant professor in the School of Global and International Studies affiliate and study of global change. If you have questions or comments, you can contact us at on phone at 8 1 2 8 5 5 0 8 1 1 or toll free at 1 8 7 7 2 8 5 9 3 4 8. And you can also send us questions for the show at News at Indiana Public Media dot org. You can follow us on Twitter at noon edition. So thank you all for being here. It's been about a week and a half since this all really started to percolate. So, you know, in that week and a half, have we stepped back from the brink of really potential serious situation? You know, where are we now? How has that week progressed? And let's start with Doctor Istrabadi. 

>>FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI: Well I think in the sort of extreme immediate term phase I think we have stepped back. The Iranians, whether intentionally or not, have sort of de-escalated, whether they took their best shot at the United States and missed, or as some analysts are suggesting didn't intend to cause casualties. In any event, there's been a de-escalation in the immediate short term. But I can't quite imagine that they are satisfied that there's been essentially only property damage in response to the killing of Major General Quasem Soleimani, either the Iranians as a government or the Revolutionary Guard Corps itself. So I suspect they will choose a time and place of their own to strike back, whether directly or through intermediaries. So I don't think it's over, but in the immediate term, I think we are in a de-escalatory phase. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: OK, Professor Banai? 

>>HUSSEIN BANAI: Yeah I couldn't agree more. I think we have avoided a direct shooting war between Iran and the United States, which was what many had feared immediately. But I don't think that conflicts between states and Iran has fundamentally changed. In fact I think the killing of Soleimani has raised the stakes for there to be down the road of some sort of tit for tat again in the future. And Iranians are biding their time for now. But I think the risk of conflict at the moment, the Iranians have calculated, is not worth their trouble, with this administration especially that seems to have responded in a very impulsive way. And we'll see what they'll do in the future. But all indications are that the relationship has been put it on a really much more conflict-prone track moving on to the future. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: And Dean Lee Feinstein you've been a member - you've been in the State Department before and you were an ambassador in Poland. So you have been on the international scene for quite a while. What do you make of what's gone on in the last eight or nine days? 

>>LEE FEINSTEIN: Well first, I would say just to reinforce what my colleagues have been saying, it's a pause. But Iran is not standing down. There are signs of a strain. You know, this morning there was some information that actually there were some American casualties. Hopefully that won't change the picture, and that we're in a position of not escalation, but it's a dangerous situation. And Iran can be expected to follow policies and behave as it has in the past. And the things to look out for are different kinds of responses. It could be cyber. It could be targeting of U.S. allies. It could be indirect attacks by Iran proxies against American troops. So, you know, but you ask kind of a diplomatic question and the diplomatic question, is what, if any, effort is going to be made to find some kind of a diplomatic off ramp to get away from the danger of an escalatory spiral and into a place where, from the U.S. perspective, steps can be taken that are more effective to effect Iran's behavior, whether it's on the nuclear front or whether it's regionally. 


>>GEORGE HALE: Yeah, actually so I want to talk about the reports that we've seen that there actually were some injuries after that attack on the base. The U.S. initially said that there weren't any, and I'm wondering from - possibly more for the Dean than the others, just from your background as a diplomat, why were those deaths or injuries perhaps kept under wraps and do you think that's part of why we might have avoided more of what you called an all out shooting war. 

>>LEE FEINSTEIN: I mean, it's hard to say, and I wouldn't want to speculate as to why. And, you know, information in a period of conflict is always very difficult to get. So I wouldn't put that much intentionality around that necessarily. It's just hard to say. But clearly, you know, despite the nature of this presidency, there has been an effort at the Defense Department and elsewhere at the State Department to a certain extent in places the State Department to try to de-escalate. And I think also this has been supported by the very strong voices in Congress, which have been alarmed about the lack of consultation the lack of sharing of information about what took place, which has driven the Congress now to pass in the House - and now very soon, it looks like, in the Senate - a resolution stating very clearly that the president would need to seek congressional approval to take military action against Iran except in cases of self-defense. I think this has also had an effect on the president in deescalating. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: So this has been, I mean, a very difficult time. And you've got - it's pretty complex. And you have the United States. You have Iran. They're in direct conflict. But it's happening on Iraqi soil. So, you know, I wanted to ask Mr. Istrabadi about that. I mean, you were the principal legal drafter of the Iraqi interim constitution in 2004 - very knowledgeable about that region, very - an expert in that area. What's the significance of this happening in Iraq right now? And how does that sort of change the dynamics? 

>>FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI: Well, I taught a course on international law at the Hamilton Luger school, and I sort of wish these events had happened a little earlier because this would have been a wonderful examination question to try to sort out the international legal issues, which are a mess, as well as some domestic legal issues, which - but it's a remarkable dynamic actually because the - you know, there's a caricature by - in one of the Iraqi publications of the Iraqi prime minister sitting there and there's got to telephones and he's got - one is connected to Iran, the other is connected to the United States and each one is informing him that they're taking military action against the other. And he says, oh, well, please go ahead. Do what you have to do. I mean, so it perfectly encapsulates the image of the Iraqi government as being totally impotent over its own territory. Now, this is a government that the United States is supposed to be allied with, and for that matter that Iran regards as an ally as well. It's an interesting dynamic by itself. And yet both governments are doing everything they can to make precisely the point that the demonstrators on the streets of Baghdad and Iraq's southern cities have been making for the last three months, which is that it's an incompetent, inept and corrupt government incapable of governing Iraq. So the actions of two states, each of which claims to be an ally of the government of Iraq, in fact undermine the legitimacy of the Iraqi government, which is sitting as a spectator. It might as well be happening somewhere else. And yet it's all occurring on Iraqi soil. It's a - and I haven't even begun to talk about the fact that there are actors within the government of Iraq who do indeed participate in the Iraqi government, but that also have a foot outside the government. So part of the time they're governmental actors and part of the time they're non-state actors, and they have a major role in all of this. It's sort of the Hezbollah model in Lebanon. We unfortunately have the same model in Iraq. So it's a very complicated mess. But in any event, the actions of all parties have undermined the government in Baghdad. To what end is not clear. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: And as far as Iran is concerned, I mean, they did - I think the dean said they haven't - they didn't stand down. But, you know, what do you think has gone on in the government in Iran right now? 

>>HUSSEIN BANAI: Well that's a very good question. I think they were initially shocked that this had taken place, especially since Qasem Soleimani's movements were not particularly done in secret in this at this point. They thought that Soleimani had achieved a level of respect, especially from those eyes from the sky and spies on the ground who had kind of seen his movements that when he's going to Baghdad or places in plain sight - apparently he was on a commercial passenger just before then - that his movements would not be something that they would have to worry about. The fact that he was killed in a manner that he was killed outside of Baghdad airport, the international airport in Baghdad was shocking to them just as it was shocking, I think, too many national security observers in the United States and elsewhere. And I think the period of mourning that we saw in Iran really represented that that it wasn't just your diehard supporters of the regime pouring out trying to demonstrate that they felt aggrieved by this action, but many ordinary Iranians as well who have no love for this regime inside Iran who really wanted to register that this kind of arbitrary action by the United States was short sighted, was bound to play in the hands of their oppressors in Iran. And so that is still playing out. And we see just a few days later people pouring out to the streets after the shoot down of the Ukrainian airliner protesting the government yet again. So the situation in Iran is very much in flux. I think one thing that the Iranians did not see coming was that the U.S. would act in such an impulsive way against their top commander, and they're still probably calculating what to do next. 

>>FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI: While Hussein was speaking it reminded me that you had a similar reaction in Iraq not to the death of Qasem Soleimani so they money but you have to remember that the United States attacked a convoy at the Baghdad International Airport. In the same car as Qasem Soleimani money is a senior Iraqi security official who is an official of the state, but also one of these militia leaders. But in any event, it was a senior Iraqi security official with whom senior officers of the U.S. armed forces had coordinated in the fight in Iraq against ISIL. So there are sort of these layers of connection, and you had very much of a similar response in Iraq, not necessarily so much that this particular individual, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was that popular necessarily, but the notion of a senior Iraqi security official being killed by an ally on Iraqi soil was shocking. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: I read a long story about that in the New York Times last week. It was fascinating to read about this run up to everything. So Dean, how - you know, how does this play out politically now? You've got - you know, everything's political these days, it seems like. 

>>LEE FEINSTEIN: Well, you know, I don't know of many critics of the killing who mourn the loss of Soleimani. I think that's the first thing that needs to be said. You know, there's the diplomacy and then there's the politics. And the diplomacy is important. And it's also driven by and affects the politics. So, you know, there's a question about the legality of this and the question of imminence. And I'd say more fundamentally why now? Why then? Why did this happen then? This is directly related to the politics because members of Congress were asking why and there was a closed door briefing. And you had members from both parties expressing real outrage that, as members of Congress, they were not being given information that they ought to have given their constitutional roles. And, you know, so, you know, the question is is this good policy? And that's been kind of the line of the political attacks as well. You know, there were probably other ways - there were certainly other ways to affect Iran's behavior, to deter Iran. And as my colleagues were saying, there were some developments on the ground which were kind of favorable to the developments United States were hoping to see in terms of criticism of Iran's role in Iraq and of course criticism of the regime in Iran itself. Relations with Iraq were already very strained. And this certainly did not not help. And President Trump ran on ending endless wars and we've now been forced to send more troops to Iraq. And I think what almost every candidate can agree, and the incumbent president, is we don't need another war in the Middle East. You know, there are a lot of other things happening globally. North Korea, Venezuela, and of course these enduring and long term and very complex challenges from China and Russia. And then the final point is just, what does this mean for Iran's nuclear ambitions and nuclear capacities? And it's not at all clear - in fact it seems to me it will have exactly the opposite effect - I think Iran - just to be clear, I think Iran is still far from a nuclear capability, has many, many hurdles and I don't wanna overstate the danger, but to the extent that the JCPOA, the nuclear deal that was agreed with the P5 - plus 1 the permanent members of the Security Council plus the European Union - during the Obama administration moved Iran farther away from a nuclear weapon. The policy of maximum pressure that the Trump administration has applied has done just the opposite. 

>>HUSSEIN BANAI: I think - just to add to what Dean Feinstein was saying, I think we are paying a heavy price of learning just why the Obama administration achieved a nuclear deal with Iran in the manner that it did - why it isolated all these other regional issues that were going to be messy. Iran's role in Iraq in Syria, the role of general Qasem Soleimani in the region writ large - there was a reason why these things were isolated outside of the nuclear framework for negotiations, and we're finding out why. And the Trump administration is demonstrating just how messy, how shortsighted and how self-defeating it could be if you introduce these other elements and use them as bargaining chips to get Iran to have a more stringent set of restrictions placed on its nuclear program. And I think the damage that this has done in the long run when it comes to that portfolio is going to be profound. Iran announced just days after Suleiman's assassination that it was ending its last technical cooperation under the terms of JCPOA, meaning that lifting the limits on enrichment levels, which could open it up in the future to enriching close to levels that were troubling and alarming to the international community. And that's been a direct result of this killing. But also I think, just to add in terms of the decision making, I think the policy of this administration has almost been to shoot first and then aim later. And the Iranians are confused about this as well. It seems like the shock that they're dealing with has to do with coming to terms with the notion that this administration actually didn't know how significant Soleimani's killing would be. And all the allies that the United States have come to grips with that as well. And in a very bizarre way, this may have been the reason why Iran's response was so restrained in the first place because they see it as almost kind of like a comical mistake that only this president could make. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Who would Soleimani compare to in the U.S.? 

>>HUSSEIN BANAI: Well, there's been a lot of comparisons floated about. I don't want to make these analogies too closely, but people have said, you know, he's kind of like a General MacArthur to the Islamic Republic in terms of his internal stature. He certainly doesn't hold that stature in Iranian society amongst everyday Iranians, but in terms of his strategic importance, he would be the equivalent of a head of CENTCOM in the region for Iran. He would be the equivalent of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As some people have said, he's the number two most important person in the Islamic Republic pecking order. And all of those things are true. But you have to kind of separate, when it comes to these analogies, the difference between the government of Iran and the Islamic Republic and the Iranian society who have their own set of troubles with Qasam Soleimani. 

>>FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI: One of the questions that I don't think was addressed by the administration prior to acting is what is the strategic benefit to the United States in doing this, and in doing this now and in doing this now in Iraq? And so while, you know, it's dangerous to make predictions about what's going to happen when you're actually going through the events, which we still very much I think are, but right now it doesn't look like the United States has gained a strategic advantage by undertaking this action. It must've felt, as Lee said, no one is shedding tears outside, I suppose, you know, the Iranian officialdom and his family of course. But for the rest of us, none of us is shedding a tear for his death. But these questions haven't been answered, and they don't seem to have been considered. And that's really the only reason to do anything, in my view. When I was a diplomat it was the only reason to do anything on the international stage, is to gain some advantage. And I just don't see - it's quite the opposite. As Hussain said, the Gulf States and Israel had been advocating a confrontation between the United States and Iran. But as soon as the sanction was taken, even the Israeli government, even the government of Saudi Arabia, even the government of the United Arab Emirates all pulled back and said we had nothing to do with this. And the Arab states, in any event, all of a sudden who had been advocating a confrontation with Iran began saying, well, let's de-escalate, which tells me their initial reaction to this is exactly as Hussein described it - that this was an oopsy. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Dean, you seemed like you wanted to say something before I cut it. 

>>LEE FEINSTEIN: I'm always ready to say something. I mean, you know, first of all, I just wanted to say Iran is in no position to wage war and doesn't want to wage war. It's domestic situation, as my colleagues can explain in great depth, is very serious. This maximum pressure policy has contributed to a decline in Iran's economy of about 10 percent over the last year or so. But, you know, the question really is, you know, what now? So it may have been unwise policy. I think at this table we agree. I think most people agree it was unwise policy. But what do you do? And so this is where you are. What's next and how do you - how do you assure not only the situation doesn't get worse, but maybe what can you do now, since it was a surprise, to take advantage of that? And, you know, it's difficult honestly. But what about the nuclear agreement? The Europeans are desperately trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube. I think it's going to be very difficult. But I do think probably some effort needs to be made to try to put it back together. With respect to the nuclear agreement, one of the interesting things is that Iran has not severed its relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency, with the nuclear monitors of the agreement, and it has not withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If it had done those two things, those would have been very serious and alarming moves. They may still do those, but as we can remember in the Iraq war, when the inspectors got kicked out, that triggered international response. And so far, Iran has been careful not to do it. But can you go back to some kind of a JCPOA or some kind of a process - you know, the phrase is if you don't have peace, you need a process - some kind of process that gets some kind of a conversation and a negotiation going? And of course, I just wanted to say one further thing about Professor Banai's point about this agreement - arms control is not a panacea. It can't solve all problems. And if you try to make it solve all problems, it will fail. Arms control exists to buy time. Buying time is a good thing. The more time you can buy, the better. So with respect to the JCPOA, to the extent that it was limited, the big limitations were that it was itself time limited. And that is probably an area, if you're going to get back to some kind of a nuclear agreement, where you probably have to extend some of the deadlines as well as probably deal with the issue of ballistic missiles. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right we're going to take a breath here and take a short break. You're listening to noon edition as we talk about the relationships between the United States and Iran and what's going on on the soil in Iraq with three great guests from Indiana University. I'll reintroduce them after we come back after this break. You're listening to noon edition. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Welcome back. Welcome back to Noon Edition. I'm Bob Zaltsberg from WFIU and WTIU. I'm here with George Hale today, who's my co-host. We have three guests in the studio - Feisal al-Istrabadi, director of the Indiana University Center for the Study of the Middle East and Professor of Practice at IU, Lee Feinstein, the dean of the Indiana University Hamilton Luger School of Global and International Affairs, and Hussein Banai an assistant professor in the School of Global and International Studies affiliate Study of Global Change. You can follow us on Twitter at noon edition, or you can join us on the air by calling 8 1 2 8 5 5 0 8 1 1 or toll free at 1 8 7 7 2 8 5 9 3 4 8. You can also send us questions for the show at news at Indiana Public Media dot org. So George? 

>>GEORGE HALE: So yeah, while not many in the U.S. are mourning Soleimani perhaps, it seems like that's not quite the case in Iran, and I'm wondering Professor Banai - you compared Qasem Soleimani to General MacArthur. I'm wondering how much does his role in Iran, his prestige in Iran been related to his fight - his role in the fight against ISIS and how much do you think his death will affect the fight against ISIS throughout the region, basically? Is his role against ISIS overblown in Iran, perhaps? Or is he actually that important? 

>>HUSSEIN BANAI: That's a very good question. I think his legend, actually, is singularly linked to his successes against ISIS - rooting out ISIS just from the outskirts of Mosul in Iraq. The government inside Iran built a great propaganda machine around Soleimani at that point. He was really not well-known prior to that campaign. He was known as a kind of commander of the elite a unit inside Iran's revolutionary guards, but really not loved or seen as a nationalist figure. He was seen as someone who was expanding Iran's - to many ordinary Iranians really nefarious influence throughout the region - exporting the revolution from Iran all the way to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. In many protests prior to his legend rising, many Iranians would chant slogans against the Revolutionary Guards for caring more about people in the Gaza Strip and in southern Lebanon than they did about their own people. And they had Soleimani in mind when they chanted those things. All of that changed when Soleimani successfully managed to, as it were, in the minds of many Iranians, clean up the mess that was left behind by the United States in the region. And as I said, this was in no small part owing to the propaganda machine around him as well. He was a person who would do selfies with soldiers in the front lines, but also in the West, he had achieved the status of a shadowy commander. The New Yorker did a profile of him that kind of compared him to this, you know, omniscient presence in the region that no one could really pin down, but was really running the shows. I think it was over exaggerated, that account of him. But all of that happened really in the trail of destruction that was left behind in these collapsed states at the heart of the Middle East - Iraq, Syria, parts of Lebanon, especially under Hezbollah control. And so Soleimani kind of took advantage of this and built his legend up. But outside of that, he really does not have that stature, as I mentioned, of a General MacArthur with the Iranian public. The regime wanted to portray him that way. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: I want to play a short clip that we have. This was from the BBC this morning. It was journalist Martin Patience talking about Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who was talking at Friday prayers. 


>>MARTIN PATIENCE: Well the very fact that he's speaking at Friday prayers I think is an indication of the pressure that he's under internationally as well as domestically. He said that America - that Iran's attack on American targets inside Iran - he said that that was a day of God. He also went on to say that Iran has the power to slap the face of an arrogant power. That of course is a reference to America. I think interestingly he also addressed some of the anger inside Iran. There's been a huge amount of anger inside Iran because many Iranians feel that the government lied to them after they shot down that Ukrainian passenger jet. But Iran's supreme leader - he said that Iran's enemies - again that's a reference to America - Britain as well, as Israel - was using that to weaken, as he said, Iran's Revolutionary Guard. So it was a defiant message I think designed for domestic consumption. Iran remains under enormous international pressure. American sanctions are hammering the country's economy. And Iran's supreme leader, the political and religious authority of that country felt that he needed to come out and directly address the Iranian people. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: So I wanted to get reaction from the three of you on that, if we could unpack this a little bit. Hussein, you want to start? 

>>HUSSEIN BANAI: Sure. Well I listened to the supreme leader's speech this morning and nothing I heard was that different from what he usually spouts when he gets behind a tribune like that. But this time around, he wanted to focus the attention, as he always does when he speaks publicly, on why it is that Iran or the Islamic Republic of Iran is the center of the resistance to American imperial arrogance, as he calls it, quote unquote. And he wanted to focus the attention on that. I was especially interested in what the reaction would be from the public to that speech, and it was very interesting that everyone was noting just how silent he was on the mistake of shooting down a Ukrainian airliner. And you could see the level of anger go up, especially on social media. And in the commentary people calling into television shows that were broadcasting his speech live. And I think that speaks to where the supreme leader has always been. He believes that anything that Iran does in the region is justified because it is an act of resistance to the United States, and that if people domestically have issues with the way in which the government is repressing the public or even killing and maiming them, Well, tough because in aggregate, this is good for the regime. This is good for Islam. And everyone should keep quiet because otherwise look at the other countries in the region, and look at where they are. At least we have a government and we are in one piece. And in fact, you should be grateful. And he noted this. I mean, very controversially he said that one of the mothers of the victims of that Ukrainian airliner had written to him and thanked him for standing firm and for not letting his resolve be shaken in the aftermath of this and that she's got her eyes on the main goal just as he does. And clearly this is something that is going to feed into the protests on the streets in the coming week again. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: All right. 

>>FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI: Well I think they're very much in survival mode. I think that if it's true, a positive case for the administration's action would be and it's being made now and has been being made of the day is deterrence, that this action now deters Iran from its bad act. I don't quite believe that that's the case, but - that that's going to work out that way. One thing I think that Dean Feinstein said is that Iran can't go to war with the United States. And that's obviously true. They're not going to field, you know, tanks and troops and brigades and so on. But they can engage in asymmetric warfare. And in that I think is where their response is going to be. The brand of Iran, they say in countries - I can't speak to the domestic situation in which Professor Banai is an expert, but in countries outside, say in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, the Iranian brand has been tarnished. This sort of juggernaut - I mean, if you consider where Iran was in 1979 at the time of the Iranian Revolution, a pariah state, completely isolated in the region - it's not that anymore. It has influence from Afghanistan virtually to the Atlantic Ocean in terms of non-state actors along the way, as well as some states along the way. That brand is tarnished now that - you know, and so they're in the business of trying to reshine it. But there is a tarnishing of the brand, and we'll see what they're able to do with it. But I think that the Supreme Leader of Iran's homily today is directed both to that and domestic audience and some - I can't quantify how real the threats are to the regime from the demonstrations, but in any event, anti regime demonstrations, but also I think to the regional audience to say Iran is still a powerful country. If Iran could really have delivered a slap to the United States, I think it would have done so. I think he knows they can't. But that's not to say that there cannot be an asymmetric response that hurts. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: OK. Dean Feinstein, anything to add to that? 

>>LEE FEINSTEIN: Just to clarify, I think what I said about Iran was that it didn't want a war with the United States, but absolutely correct, Professor Istrabadi's point that there - and as I said earlier, the importance of understanding that this is a pause, not a standing down, and that there are lots of different ways in which Iran can and probably will respond. And that's what we have to manage and try to deter. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: We will take your questions if you want to give us a call at 8 1 2 8 5 5 0 8 1 1 in Bloomington, or toll free at 1 8 7 7 2 8 5 9 3 4 8. You can also send us questions at news at Indiana Public Media dot org. George? 

>>GEORGE HALE: Yes, so how is Feisal's - sorry, Professor Feisal. 

>>FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI: First name is fine. I've been called worse. 

>>GEORGE HALE: How is Soleimani's death going to affect Iran's influence over some of its allies in the Middle East like Syria? Do you think that they're concerned that he's gone? Or was he more of a just a figurehead? 

>>FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI: He certainly was much more than a figurehead. But so he's between being a figurehead and and what the president said, which - this is bigger than taking out Osama bin Laden. This is bigger than taking out Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the head of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which was the claim the president made. Neither one of those two statements, I think, are true. So he is much more than a figurehead. He has been - he's been - he has been running Iraq policy for the Iranian government. And I think he's been running Syria and Lebanon policy for them as well, as opposed to, say, having it being run out of the the foreign ministry. Incidentally, the foreign minister of Iran and I are acquainted with one another. We were at the United Nations at the same time. Obviously, I was representing Iraq. He was representing Iran. In any case, but we knew that the foreign minister of Iran was not running Iraq policy. So he is - but on the other hand, Iran is not a terrorist organization. Iran is a state, and he was executing state policy. And he may have been particularly good at it from their perspective, but he was - but he was executing state policy and that state policy is unlikely to change because he is not there. His replacement was appointed immediately. The policies are likely to continue. The question is, are his successors - whether this particular successor lasts or not - will his successors be as capable as he was? That remains to be seen. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: We really haven't talked a lot about the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner. What - I think you talked a little bit about how there's a lot of anger and that wasn't brought up this morning except the anger was was there. What should happen next on that? I mean, Iran has admitted that it did. It was a mistake. So what do the people want from the government now? 

>>HUSSEIN BANAI: Yeah I think the shooting down of the airliner is a very - and the way it was handled is a classic case study in not ever overestimating the ability of authoritarian regimes to undermine themselves, as the Iranian government did - or underestimating, I should say. It took them three days to admit that this was a mistake that they made, and embarrassingly so. It came after the United States first adamantly came forward - President Trump did in his speech to the nation, saying that we think it was a mistake, meaning that we are happy to de-escalate and we understand you guys didn't have your affairs in order. And then other European allies and other countries in the region reiterating. That was deeply embarrassing for the Iranians to take their time and then find out that everyone basically knew their air defenses better than they seem to have. So it was both a demonstration of incompetence but also on their part chicanery and malevolence. And the public immediately was outraged by why the government would not admit to this right away, but also by really failing to identify with the victims and their families until much later in the game. The Canadian government, the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is now beloved in Iran because of that level of compassion that he's shown because of his remorse, because of him showing at a vigil in Ottawa that he held for the victims of the flight. None of these things happened by Iranian officials inside Iran. And in fact, to the extent that since then they have taken responsibility for it, there's this asterisk - a rather giant asterisk attached to it that this happened because of the United States killing of Qasem Soleimani, which further angers the Iranians because, well, yes those two events are close together, but at the same time, if you admitted to the mistake and you handled it correctly after the fact, then you would show more respect and dignity towards your own people. And so they lost whatever upper hand they had in the aftermath and now that narrative has changed back to them and what this government is fundamentally about, which is about really doubling down on its ideological mission, exploiting Soleimani's assassination, and exploiting the anger against it by its public for its own purposes to further project its policy in the region again. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Dean Feinstein, you talked about the fact that - you know, where do we go next? And, you know, sort of what happens after all of this. So do you have any - you have a crystal ball? Can you make some suggestions for what should happen next? 

>>LEE FEINSTEIN: Well, sure. I mean, I think we're all in agreement. We need to de-escalate, and we need to get back to diplomacy, which is not going to be easy, even if that were the desire of the U.S. president, which is unclear at this time. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: Can I just ask, how unusual is it for a president to say, well, you know, we just launched this attack and we took out this high level person in this government? How unusual is it for that to happen? 

>>LEE FEINSTEIN: Well, look, there have been targeted killings in the previous administration, and this is not a new policy, but - a new act for American presidents in this era of imperial presidencies. But what was particularly unusual about this was the decision to take action against someone of this significance who is a sitting government official and to do it without any clear understanding of why now, and without any - and if there was information, and maybe there is information that there was an imminent attack and that the decision to take out Soleimani prevented it. But if there is such information available, it needs to be presented. And it hasn't been presented yet. And so that is very unusual. The lack of consultation with allies, if not in advance, immediately after the fact is also highly unusual. And this has also complicated the security situation for the United States having to reinforce, on very short notice, its troops in Iraq and basically converting overnight the mission of American troops in Iraq to almost entirely a force protection mission. So the lack of consultation with Congress, the lack of consultation with allies, the disinterest in trying to explain what the rationale was or the legal basis - these things are very unusual. 

>>FEISAL AL-ISTRABADI: The other unusual aspect of this of course is that it was done in a third country of an allied government, Iraq. And the consequence of that has been that the parliament of Iraq has passed a resolution mandating the government of Iraq to set a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. The prime minister of Iraq has already informed the American ambassador in Baghdad that U.S. forces need to leave. The president and the secretary of state are saying, no, we won't go, which is not a position the United States wants to be in, saying publicly that places that it had sent troops to pursuant to a request from a host government - once we're here, you can't tell us to leave - and whereas demonstrators for three months have been chanting on the streets of Baghdad's mostly Shiite cities in Baghdad and southern Iraq, Iran out out, at least some of those demonstrators began saying they want both Iran and the United States out. So this is why I said earlier, what was the strategic advantage to the United States of acting now? It has every possibility of sort of being an own goal, as they say in soccer, much as the - with respect to the United States - much as the response of the Iranian government to the shoot down of the airliner seems to have been an own goal. 

>>HUSSEIN BANAI: That's right. And just to add to this, all of this stems from the fact that there is no coherent Iran policy coming out of Washington. I mean, I can't emphasize this enough - no one understands what this administration's strategy is except to cancel what the previous administration had achieved on Iran. It's remarkable that they've gone to the lengths of putting policy prescriptions out there toward a strategy that doesn't seem to exist, those prescriptions being maximum pressure on Iran and also on the European allies because those are the countries that were handling Iran's opening to the global community, as it were. This administration has seemed very clear on its antipathies towards Iran and a nuclear deal. It has been less clear as to what prescriptions that it has employed will eventually lead to. And it hasn't articulated that and every subsequent action we see is really a symptom of a lack of a coherent policy agenda regarding a country that really is at the center of American national interests in the region right now. You have to have a sound policy if you would like to keep your allies in the region happy, if you want to nourish the governments of Iraq and your allies in the region toward Iran. You need to have a coherent policy as to how the Iranians can be helpful in the fight against ISIS, in stabilizing Afghanistan, in stabilizing Iraq, et cetera. And this administration came in having this nuclear deal in place and it threw it out and opened this Pandora's Box that on a weekly basis we're trying to figure out where it would lead us. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: We just have two minutes to go, so I want to go back to that question about what next? And Dean Feinstein was was starting to answer that and then I threw in that other question about the president in there, so 30 seconds, 40 seconds that you could solve this issue about what we're supposed to do next? 

>>LEE FEINSTEIN: No. But I do think - as we were saying before, I think we need to try, as difficult and unlikely as it is, to be successful. I think we have to try to prevent the nuclear deal with Iran from unraveling entirely. There have been some very serious steps that Iran has taken, but it hasn't taken these very fateful steps of kicking out inspectors and withdrawing from its commitments not to pursue the nuclear option under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. So I think we need to at least preserve that and work with the Europeans who are desperate to keep this agreement in some kind of shape on some kind of an effort to build back some kind of an agreement. We've got to work with our Iraqi partners and repair relations there. They - maybe one option is presence without stationing, to use an old phrase there. There might be some ways to to address that. And, you know, there was a time not too long ago where we did have some cooperation with Iran on Afghanistan, for example. And so it seems very unlikely at this time. But we need to get on a path in that direction and, you know, just in general, we've got lots of things on our foreign policy plate. But the Middle East still matters. It's not the top thing, but it matters. We're energy self-sufficient now. But we're not energy independent, and the future of global economies and the stability of our friends around the world depend very much on a stable Middle East. 

>>BOB ZALTSBERG: OK. And with that, we are out of time. I want to thank our three guests today, all from the Indiana School of Global and International Studies global international affairs. So Feisal al-Istrabadi, Hussein Banai, and Dean Lee Feinstein. For George Hale, my co-host, for Mike Paskash, engineer, and Bente Bouthier, producer, I'm Bob Zaltsberg. Thanks for listening.


Image of Tehran, the capital city of Iran. (Jørn Eriksson, Creative Commons)

Noon Edition airs on Fridays at noon on WFIU.

Earlier this month, news spread that Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, a high ranking Iranian military leader, was killed in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad's international airport.

President Donald Trump authorized the Iranian leader's killing in June, with the condition that Trump would give the final command on any direct operation or plan carried out.

Trump authorized the killing of the general after Iran shot down a U.S. drone that it claimed was in its airspace. The U.S. claimed it was in international water.

Tensions between the two countries have been escalating since the U.S. withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. The U.S. has been in conflict with factions in Iraq that are supported by Iran.

But the order to take action against Soleimani reportedly would only be carried out if mounting tensions between Iran and the U.S. resulted in the death of an American.

On Dec. 27, a paramilitary group supported by the Iranian government launched a rocket attack at an Iraqi base, killing a U.S. contractor.

Following the attack, U.S. military leaders met with President Trump to present him with options for retaliation, one of which was the assassination of Soleimani.

Some U.S. military officials claim that Soleimani had imminent attack plans against Americans.

Iran retaliated to the killing of the general by striking bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq in the days following. No Americans were killed.

Soleimani was a senior official in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Force. In the days after his death, thousands gathered in the streets in Baghdad and Tehran to mourn him, calling for revenge.

Last week, a Ukrainian civilian jetliner was shot down, crashing on the outskirts of Tehran and killing 176 people. In the days after, Iran acknowledged it was responsible for shooting down the plane.

Iranian officials say the plane was accidently mistaken for a threatening object approaching the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They say they were expecting a U.S. attack because of the increasingly stressed relationship with the country.

Join us this week as we discuss relations between the United States and Iran and what to be watching for in the coming weeks.

You can follow us on Twitter @NoonEdition or join us on the air by calling in at 812-855-0811 or toll-free at 1-877-285-9348. You can also send us questions for the show at

Our Guests

Feisal Amin Rasoul al-Istrabadi, director of Indiana University's Center for the Study of the Middle East; professor of practice

Lee Feinstein, dean of the Indiana University Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Affairs

Hussein Banai, assistant professor, School of Global and International Studies Affiliate, Study of Global Change

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