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Trump Administration Plots Responses To Iran Downing A U.S. Drone

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump ordered airstrikes last night on Iran. Then, according to multiple news reports, he put a stop to them. The Trump administration is trying to figure out how to respond to Iran's downing of a U.S. drone. So what would be the implications of a U.S. military strike on Iran? Norman Roule joins us now. He spent 34 years in the CIA. He retired in 2017 as the point person on Iran for U.S. intelligence.

Mr. Roule, thanks for being with us.

NORMAN ROULE: My pleasure.

MARTIN: What do you make of the reports that the U.S. nearly went to war last night?

ROULE: Well, each side is currently playing different games. The U.S. is playing a long game with sanctions designed to transform Iran's behavior. The Iranians are using tools aimed at jarring global energy markets and also exploiting, I believe, political divisions within the U.S. and between the United States and its international partners. President Trump's conundrum is not dissimilar to that of his predecessors. However, if you undertake any action, people will always rightfully ponder, what is the secondary action? What is the day-after influence?

MARTIN: I wonder how you think about Iran's perception of this. I mean, how do they think of President Trump calling for airstrikes and then pulling them back? How do they interpret that?

ROULE: Well, I think Iran knows that we have a massive amount of firepower sitting in the region. It dwarfs any capacity that they have. They know that we are capable of inflicting tremendous damage upon their military capacity in the area. I think they've just seen a near miss. They've heard a warning.

At the same time, I do believe that Iran has also likely noticed an absence of international reaction to its attacks against the tankers, the UAV action against Yanbu. And I think I should also add that there have been previous attacks on oil facilities and against oil ships in the Red Sea undertaken by Iran's servants, the Houthis. And overall, I think Iran senses that there is very little international appetite to address these issues. For this reason, my sense is that Iran will continue to undertake provocative actions, likely because it believes it has yet to reach a international red line.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, you're referencing the two private oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. blames Iran for attacks on those.

ROULE: Correct.

MARTIN: So what do you think should be the red line when it comes to what would determine a U.S. military strike against Iran?

ROULE: Well, first, these attacks are aimed against the international community, the global energy markets. The response needs to be an international response. And it's unfair to put this entire problem on Washington. Yes, Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. At the same time, Iran's malign actions in the region, which include hundreds of missile attacks on Saudi Arabia from Yemen, have gone unanswered. So there needs to be an international focus on Iran. Iran is most concerned of multilateral diplomatic and economic pressure. For the United States, we should defend our forces, our military freedom of movement in international waterways. And we should defend that robustly.

MARTIN: Are you saying the United States should not engage in a military response against Iran unless it is a collective action - unless it has the support of Europeans?

ROULE: No, I didn't say that. I'm saying that there should be a diplomatic approach and an economic approach by the international community. But if American equities, personnel or military forces are confronted by Iran, we should respond directly but in a proportional and measured fashion.

MARTIN: Steve Inskeep, my co-host, spoke with Iran's ambassador to the U.N. And here's what he said about Iran's endgame.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MAJID TAKHT-RAVANCHI: Iran's strategy is to stick to the nuclear deal, which has the endorsement of the international community. And if the U.S. goes back to the nuclear deal, I think, as I said, we will be in a much better situation.

MARTIN: Do you agree with the Iranian ambassador that the U.S. should return to the nuclear deal? I mean, did that give the U.S. more leverage over Iran?

ROULE: Well, in theory, it did, although I think it's fair to say that the entire international community - and that included the U.S. - didn't undertake a lot of action to address Iran's missile program, support for terrorism or regional activities for several years. If the United States does return to the nuclear deal, which I believe is unlikely, we now confront two new issues. Within the nuclear deal, in October of 2020, the restrictions on Iran's conventional arms sales and purchases will be lifted. Do you or any of the listeners believe the Middle East would be safer if Iran could purchase fighter bombers from Moscow or sell tanks to Hezbollah? In October of '23, the restrictions on Iran's ballistic missile program will be lifted, according to the deal. Do you think the region will be safer if Iran can purchase openly ICBM parts or sell missile components to the Houthis in Yemen openly?

That is now a problem we've got to address, but it's a problem of Iran's making. The United States did not compel Iran to support the Houthis or create militias in Syria or undertake at least six or seven compromised or investigated terrorist actions in Europe. Iran is making this problem. This is not entirely a problem of U.S. concern.

MARTIN: You said the United States should engage in a military response only if it's limited and proportional to the aggression. Do you think the U.S. can even win a limited-strike war with Iran? I mean, isn't there, embedded in this, an inherent risk of escalation?

ROULE: Well, yes. But at the same time, the goal of a proportional strike is, in essence, to say, we would undertake an action that would promote a debate among the supreme leader - with the supreme leader and senior-most advisers to say, is this policy something we should continue? Is this potential prize worth the very real price? And the U.S. has enormous capacity. The Trump administration has undertaken actions in Syria - unilateral military actions in Syria. That did not lead to a wider conflict.

And I sometimes worry that when we talk about conflict with Iran, we go immediately from any pressure to full-blown regional war rather quickly. The Iranians cannot afford a conflict at present. Their economy is spiraling. But more importantly, they're facing an unprecedented series of simultaneous ecological, economic, political and social problems for which they have no response. And they need stability as much as anything else. A conflict, a traditional conflict, would be disastrous for Iranian stability at a time when they may be facing a new supreme leader. And they're in the final years of their president - an Iranian president.

MARTIN: Norman Roule - he was the national intelligence manager for Iran at the office of the Director of National Intelligence. He served for 34 years in the CIA.

Thank you so much for your time this morning.

ROULE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.