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Foreign Policy Analysis
Foreign policy experts weigh in on Trump’s Iran strategy

Foreign policy experts weigh in on Trump’s Iran strategy


JUDY WOODRUFF: And now a return to our top
story. The killing of one of Iran’s top military
leaders has raised the question, does the Trump administration have an effective strategy
for Iran, Iraq and the broader Middle East? Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin
picks it up from there. NICK SCHIFRIN: Judy, at this hour, there are
developing reports of rocket attacks on a U.S. base in Iraq. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps says
this attack is in retaliation for the killing of Qasem Soleimani. As we follow that story, we also want to zoom
out to talk about the overall strategy toward Iran in the Middle East with two people who
know the region well. Mara Karlin worked at the Pentagon during
the George W. Bush administration and was appointed to a senior position during the
Obama administration. She’s now director of strategic studies at
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And Michael Doran was senior director for
the Middle East on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration and
is now a senior fellow at The Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Mara Karlin, let me start with you. I guess I have to get your response. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is taking
credit for these attacks and saying that these are rocket attacks from Iran into Iraq at
U.S. bases. Could we get your response? MARA KARLIN, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced
International Studies: Yes, this is probably the first event that we will see of a slew
of others, Nick. The U.S. set a new bar by killing Qasem Soleimani,
who we can all agree was a horrific human being, who was catastrophic for U.S. national
security interest. But, in killing him, as I said, it’s a new
bar, and now the Iranians are starting to retaliate. And I suspect we will see a whole lot more
in and around the region over the coming days, weeks, and potentially months. NICK SCHIFRIN: Michael Doran, some of the
critics of this attack, as you know well, were worried about a cycle of escalation happening
after this attack. Do you have that worry, especially now, as
we see, as Mara Karlin says, perhaps the first of a few attacks from Iran? MICHAEL DORAN, Former National Security Council
Staffer: Well, it didn’t start with the attack on Qasem Soleimani. The Iranians have been escalating in a very
deliberate fashion since last April, deliberate, but incremental. And that escalation ended up with the killing
of an American. Now we have a new level of escalation, where
they’re attacking us from Iran. We have no choice now whatsoever. We’re under attack. This is war. We have no choice but to win the escalation
ladder. NICK SCHIFRIN: Mara Karlin, are you worried
about, as Michael Doran just said, the escalation ladder? And do we have no choice? Do we just have to simply keep climbing the
ladder, so to speak? MARA KARLIN: It’s profoundly concerning. This has been going on for a while. Both the U.S. and the Iranians have taken
a wide variety of escalatory steps. But hitting someone so senior in the Iranian
national security apparatus is an entirely different ball game. It is still unclear why the U.S. hit Soleimani
where they hit him and when they hit him. And I fear that we are going to spin further
out of control, without a whole lot of clarity as to why. NICK SCHIFRIN: Michael Doran, do you believe
that the Trump administration has clarity as to why they hit Qasem Soleimani and why
this escalation is OK? MICHAEL DORAN: Oh, absolutely. The Iranians had made a decision, Qasem Soleimani
was implementing it, to throw the United States out of Iraq. That’s why they were attacking our bases. That’s why they killed an American there. And that’s why they attacked the embassy. And we saw it with our own eyes, what was
happening. Those militias on the ground in Iraq are armed,
trained, equipped, and controlled by Iran. Everyone knows that. It’s not — what Trump said to the Iranians
is, we’re not going to play this game anymore where you hit us with militias and we respond
against the militias. We know that you’re doing it. And we’re going to respond to you. This is not something that Donald Trump brought
on the United States. The Iranians have been fighting this war against
us now since last April. NICK SCHIFRIN: Mara Karlin, what about that,
the idea that by President Trump, by killing Soleimani, has essentially restored deterrence
on Iran and that this was Iran’s escalation long before the U.S. escalated? MARA KARLIN: Look, this is a story that lasts
years, to put it lightly, but it is pretty clear that the U.S. and the Iranians are now
in a tit-for-tat escalatory spiral. It is hard to imagine how this turns out well. And, frankly, Soleimani is probably spinning
with delight in his grave. If one of his goals was to push the U.S. military
out of Iraq, it appears as though he may be getting that wish sooner, rather than later. NICK SCHIFRIN: Michael Doran, you argued before
that Iran was controlling a lot of these militias in Iraq, but, of course, the U.S. military
has great influence over the Iraqi military. It is training the Iraqi military and fighting
alongside the Iraqi military with ISIS. But, at this point, right now, the prime minister
of Iraq is suggesting that the U.S. leave. Are you concerned that the prime minister
has said the U.S. should leave Iraq in response to the U.S. decision to kill Qasem Soleimani? MICHAEL DORAN: Well, the prime minister is
a lame-duck, and until — there is a constitutional crisis in Iraq right now. Until we have a new government in place, the
statements that he’s making don’t really matter. And the key question is not whether we stay
in Iraq or not. We’re under attack as we speak from the IRGC
firing missiles from Iran at an American base. So, the question isn’t anymore what the prime
minister of Iraq is saying, what the half of the Parliament is saying. The question is, what are we going to do about
this direct attack on American forces from the Iranians? And there is no choice here whatsoever. If we’re to achieve any of our goals in the
Middle East, then we have to demonstrate to the world and to the Iranians that they cannot
treat us like this. NICK SCHIFRIN: Mara Karlin, is that how you
see it? Is the response from the Iraqi prime minister
less important right now? And does the U.S. simply need to respond again
back where we were, kind of raising up on that escalatory ladder? MARA KARLIN: Nick, the conversation is completely
changed because of this attack. The U.S. and Iraq are divided. The U.S. is divided from its European allies. Iran has been facing the largest protests
in 40 years. That is off the headlines. The fight against the Islamic State is now
on hold, at best. It is a little bit hard to figure out how,
as Mike is saying, any sort of deterrent could be restored. NICK SCHIFRIN: Mike, what about that? The coalition in Iraq did acknowledge that
the fight against ISIS was on hold. There have been other side effects of Qasem
Soleimani’s death. Are you worried about all of that affecting
things as the U.S. decides how to respond tonight? MICHAEL DORAN: The greatest strategic threat
that the United States has faced in the Middle East for the last decade is the rise of Iran
across the region, the proliferation of these militias across the Arab world, the distribution
to those militias of precision-guided weaponry, and the effort of Iran to use those new positions
to undermine the American security system in the region. If we’re going to stay in this region, and
if we’re going to lead this region, then we have to demonstrate that we cannot be pushed
around by Iran in this way. If we’re going to — if we’re ever going to
achieve an Iran without nuclear weapons, which four presidents have said is absolutely unacceptable,
then we have to win this round and we have to win it decisively. There is no other choice. NICK SCHIFRIN: Mara Karlin, in the 45 seconds
or so that we have left, Mike Doran brings up that Iran has been spreading missiles throughout
the region. This, however, is a response, apparently,
from Iran itself, from the Revolutionary Guard. Just explain that significance and how important
and how fraught this moment is. MARA KARLIN: Absolutely. We are in probably the most tense moment that
the U.S. has been in the Middle East for decades, to put it lightly, I mean, easily since the
Iraq invasion. What’s particularly ironic, however, is that
the Trump administration has continued to be, like previous administrations before it,
embroiled in Middle East purgatory. Its strategy of focusing on China, focusing
on the real geopolitical challenges, on great power competition, are invariably going to
melt away as the Middle East continues to surge to the top of the priority list. NICK SCHIFRIN: Michael Doran, just in the
last few seconds that I have, can you just respond to that, please? MICHAEL DORAN: The United States is much more
powerful than Iran. Iran is like a puffer fish. It look powerful because of these militias
with these precision-guided weapons and because of its boldness. It’s suffering an unprecedented crisis of
legitimacy at home. Its position in Iraq has been challenged by
protesters on the ground who want Iran out of Iraq. It is behaving in this aggressive fashion
in order to look much stronger than it is. We can best this adversary with relative ease. NICK SCHIFRIN: Michael Doran from The Hudson
Institute, Mara Karlin from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies,
thanks very much to you both. MARA KARLIN: Thank you. MICHAEL DORAN: Thank you.

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