STANDOFF WITH IRAN

Are we on the brink of another war in the Middle East? Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof examines the U.S.-Iran confrontation.

Aired on January 13, 2020.

TRANSCRIPT

GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

I'M RAFAEL PI ROMAN.

PULITZER PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR NICHOLAS KRISTOF HAS WRITTEN EXTENSIVELY ABOUT IRAN AND HAS VISITED THE COUNTRY A NUMBER OF TIMES.

IN JUNE OF LAST YEAR, KRISTOF WARNED THAT PRESIDENT TRUMP AND IRAN MIGHT BE IN A COLLISION COURSE, AND THAT IT COULD GET SCARIER.

WELL, HE WAS RIGHT.

IT HAS.

THE HOSTILITIES BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND IRAN ESCALATED TO AN UNPRECEDENTED LEVEL AFTER A SERIES OF IRANIAN PROVOCATIONS LED TO THE TARGETED KILLING OF IRANIAN MAJOR GENERAL QASSEM SOLEIMANI, WIDELY CONSIDERED THE SECOND MOST POWERFUL MAN IN IRAN.

GIVEN THOSE EVENTS, THE CONSEQUENT SHELLING OF IRAQ CAN I MILITARY BASES AND THE PRESIDENT'S RESPONSE TO THAT MISSILE ATTACK, WE HAVE INVITED KRISTOF BACK ON THE PROGRAM TO HIS HIS TAKE ON THE STATE OF THE LATEST CONFLICT.

WELCOME BACK TO THE PROGRAM.

GOOD TO BE WITH YOU.

SO WHAT IS THE CURRENT STATE OF THE CONFLICT?

IT LOOKS AS IF WE MAY HAVE FOR THE MOMENT AVOIDED A ALL-OUT SHOOTING WAR BETWEEN THE IRAN AND U.S., WHICH WAS A REAL RISK IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE KILLING OF GENERAL SOLEIMANI, BUT WE HAVEN'T SOLVED THE UNDERLYING ISSUES, AND I WORRY ABOUT TWO THINGS IN PARTICULAR THAT I THINK SET US UP FOR CONFRONTATION DOWN THE ROAD.

ONE IS THAT I THINK IT'S QUITE LIKELY THAT IRAN WILL RETALIATE IN OTHER WAYS AGAINST THE UNITED STATES IN THE COMING MONTHS.

DESPITE THE FACT THAT THEY SAID THIS WAS OUR RESPONSE?

THAT'S RIGHT.

I THINK THIS WAS THE OFFICIAL FORMAL RESPONSE THAT HAS THEIR NAME ATTACHED TO IT.

AND I THINK THAT THERE WILL BE OTHER RESPONSES THAT WILL HAVE A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY, WHICH IRAN HAS TENDED TO DO IN THE PAST.

SO THIS MAY MEAN BLOWING UP OIL TANKERS IN THE STRAIT OF HORMUZ.

IT MAY BE MORE CYBER ATTACKS.

IT MAY BE A TRUCK EXPLOSION AT A U.S. FACILITY CLAIMED BY SOME GROUP THAT NOBODY HAS HEARD OF.

BUT THINGS THAT PEOPLE WILL SUSPECT THAT IRAN WAS PROBABLY RESPONSIBLE BUT WON'T BE ENTIRELY SURE.

AND THERE WILL BE THEN PRESSURE ON THE U.S. TO RESPOND.

AND THE OTHER IS THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR PRODUCTION.

AND IN A SENSE, THAT IS THE UNDERLYING CRISIS.

THAT IS THE DRIVER OF THESE ISSUES HERE.

PRESIDENT TRUMP WITHDREW FROM THE NUCLEAR DEAL, IMPOSED MORE SANCTIONS WITH THE IDEA THAT MAXIMUM PRESSURE WOULD BRING IRAN BACK TO THE TABLE.

INSTEAD, IT HAS LED IRAN TO ENGAGE IN SERIOUS PROVOCATIONS AND THE U.S. INITIALLY PERHAPS UNDERRESPONDED TO THEM.

I BELIEVE IT IS LATELY BEEN OVERRESPONDING IN WAYS THAT ARE NOT GOING TO LEAD IRAN TO RETURN TO THE NEGOTIATING TABLE, BUT MAY WELL LEAD TO IT STRIKE OUT AND CERTAINLY ARE LEADING IT BACK TOWARD A NUCLEAR WEAPON.

LET'S TALK THAN IN A MOMENT.

BUT, YOU KNOW, SOME CONSERVATIVE PUNDITS AND CONSERVATIVE POLITICIANS WHO SUPPORTED THE KILLING, WHO SUPPORT THE KILLING OF GENERAL SOLEIMANI WOULD SAY THAT IF IN FACT THE IRANIANS DO THESE EVENTS, THESE ACTS, AS YOU SUGGEST THROUGH PROXIES MOSTLY, THEN WHAT'S NEW WITH THAT?

THAT'S PAR FOR THE COURSE.

SO THEREFORE, WHAT JUST HAPPENED WAS A BIG WIN FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP AND FOR THE UNITED STATES BECAUSE THEY KILLED THE SECOND MOST POWERFUL MAN IN IRAN WHO GENERAL PETRAEUS SAID WAS MUCH MORE A SIGNIFICANT EVENT THAN HAVING KILLED BAGHDADI.

AND IN RETURN WE GOT THOSE MISSILES WHERE NOBODY WAS KILLED.

GOOD TRADE-OFF.

SO LET ME PUSH BACK TO THAT.

FIRST OF ALL I SAY THAT AFTER THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR DEAL IN 2015, THEN IN FACT THINGS WERE REASONABLY STABLE.

AND SO IRAN, FOR EXAMPLE, BRIEFLY TOOK A U.S. SHIP IN THE GULF AND QUICKLY RETURNED IT.

IN FACT IRAN WAS NOT ENGAGING IN THOSE PROVOCATIONS IN THAT PERIOD.

SO IT IS TRUE THAT GENERAL SOLEIMANI WAS A VERY BAD ACTOR WHO HAD BLOOD ON HIS HANDS.

THERE ARE A LOT OF PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD WITH BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS.

I MEAN KIM JONG-UN IS ABOUT AS RUTHLESS A TYRANT AS ONE COULD THINK OF, AND PRESIDENT TRUMP DID NOT PUT HIM IN A HEADLOCK AND TRY TO DRAG HIM INTO A JAIL CELL.

AND IN FACT I THINK ONE OF THE LESSONS OF THE U.S. TREATMENT OF NORTH KOREA VERSUS IRAN THAT IS GOING OUT IS THAT IF YOU ACTUALLY ALREADY HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON, THEN WE WILL TREAT YOU WITH SOME RESPECT.

IF YOU DON'T, THEN YOU'RE VULNERABLE.

MAYBE THE OTHER LESSON IS LET'S NOT HAVE TWO STATES THAT HAVE NUCLEAR POWER.

WE SHOULDN'T.

I THINK THAT IS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT, AND I THINK THAT IRAN IS RECKLESS WITHOUT NUCLEAR WEAPONS.

I WOULD NOT WANT IT TO GET THEM.

THAT'S WHY THE NUCLEAR DEAL IN 2015 WAS SO IMPORTANT, THAT IT ACTUALLY KEPT IRAN ABOUT 15 YEARS FROM ACTUALLY GETTING A NUCLEAR WEAPON, AND VERIFIABLY THEY HAVE INSPECTORS IN PLACE.

NOBODY WAS ACCUSING OF CHEATING IN A SIGNIFICANT WAY.

PRESIDENT TRUMP HAD A LEGITIMATE CONCERN.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER 15 YEARS.

THOSE ARE VERY VALID CONCERNS.

BUT THE SOLUTION I THINK WAS NOT TO AGGRAVATE THE DEAL AND NOW WE'RE A FEW MONTHS FROM THAT.

PART OF THAT DEAL WAS GIVING IRAN $150 BILLION.

IT WAS THEIR MONEY, BUT THEY DIDN'T VISIT.

WE HAD IT.

WITH PLUS $1.8 BILLION IN CASH WHICH THE PRESIDENT IN HIS SPEECH AFTER THE MISSILE ATTACKS SAID IT WAS THAT MONEY THAT BOUGHT THOSE MISSILES, AND IT WAS THE SUBSERVIENCE MANIFESTED BY THE DEAL THAT THE UNITED STATES AND THE WEST MADE THAT EMBOLDENED IRAN TO GO OUT AND DO PROVOCATIONS.

HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO THAT?

SO, YOU KNOW, ALL IN ALL, I THINK IT'S JUST AS WELL THAT THE REGIME NOT HAVE MORE MONEY, AND THE -- I SUSPECT SOME OF THE MONEY DID GO TOWARD MISSILES AND OTHER THINGS.

HOWEVER, THAT WAS PART OF THE COST OF GETTING A DEAL IN WHICH IRAN GAVE UP MORE THAN 90% OF ITS NUCLEAR FUEL IN WHICH IT WAS 15 YEARS FROM HAVING NUCLEAR WEAPON.

I THINK THAT IT WOULD BE HARD TO FIND ANYBODY WHO THOUGHT THAT WE ARE BETTER NOW WITH IRAN SPINNING THE CENTRIFUGES AND AMASSING NUCLEAR FUEL THAN WE WERE A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO WITH THOSE CENTRIFUGES STOPPED.

AND PART OF THE COST OF THAT IS RETURNING SOME OF IRAN'S OWN MONEY, WHICH WE HAD TO DO AT SOME POINT, THEN I THINK THAT'S A DEBATE WORTH DISCUSSING.

BUT IT SEEMS TO ME THAT ON BALANCE, IT WAS BETTER DEAL.

BUT, YOU KNOW, SOME OF THE PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT THE STEPS THAT PRESIDENT TRUMP HAS TAKEN POINT TO THE WAY THAT IRAN RESPONDED.

MISSILES THAT HIT NO ONE.

AND BY SOME LUCK, INFORMATION GETTING TO THE UNITED STATES THREE HOURS BEFORE THE ATTACKS.

RIGHT.

THEY SAY THIS IS NO ACCIDENT.

THEY SAY THAT THE IRANIANS DID NOT WANT TO CAUSE CASUALTIES BECAUSE THEY DON'T WANT A WAR.

AND THAT INDICATES THAT WHEN YOU FIGHT THEM BACK, THEY BACK OFF.

AND THE PRESIDENT HAS SAID CLEARLY THAT IF AMERICANS ARE KILLED, HE'LL RESPOND, AND HE DID, AND THAT IF THEY DEVELOP NUCLEAR -- IF THEY GET CLOSE TO DEVELOPING NUCLEAR ARMS, THEY'LL RESPOND, AND THEY DID.

IT LOOKS LIKE THE LEADERSHIP IN IRAN IS PAYING ATTENTION.

ISN'T THAT A GOOD THING?

I THINK IT IS VERY TRUE THAT IRAN'S LEADERS ARE TRYING TO CALIBRATE THEIR RESPONSE, AND THAT THEY DON'T WANT AN ALL-OUT CH SHOOTING WAR.

IRAN AND THE U.S. ARE TO SOME DEGREE PLAY TO THEIR DOMESTIC BASE.

SO LET'S LOOK AT KIND OF WHERE THINGS STAND AFTER THE KILLING OF GENERAL SOLEIMANI AND WHAT WE GAINED AND WHAT WE LOST.

SO WE DID REMOVE A PARTICULARLY ADEPT AND STRATEGICALLY ON THE IRANIAN SIDE WHO WAS PROMPTLY REPLACED.

THAT PROBABLY DID HELP REESTABLISH DETERRENTS, WHICH ONE OF THE PROBLEMS IS IRAN BECAME MORE PROVOCATIVE LAST MAY, AND WE DIDN'T REALLY RESPOND TO A SERIES OF PROVOCATIONS.

WE PROBABLY SHOULD HAVE DONE -- TAKEN SOME STEPS TO ESTABLISH THAT DETERRENT.

NOW WE HAVE REESTABLISHED THAT DETERRENCE, BUT AT WHAT COST?

I THINK IT'S QUITE LIKELY THAT WE WILL END UP PUSHED ENTIRELY OR MOSTLY OUT OF IRAQ, GIVING -- WHICH IS REALLY SOMETHING THAT GENERAL SOLEIMANI HAD STRIVED FOR DURING HIS LIFE.

AS YOU WROTE IN THE PIECE, HE IS GOING TO GET IN DEATH WHAT HE COULDN'T GET IN LIFE.

EXACTLY.

AND THAT IS A STRATEGIC GAIN FOR IRAN.

WITHOUT A U.S. PRESENCE IN IRAQ, IT WILL BE A LOT HARDER TO SUSTAIN THE U.S. PRESENCE IN SYRIA.

WE MAY HAVE TO PULL OUT THOSE THOUSAND ODD TROOPS WHICH WILL BE ANOTHER GAIN FOR IRAN.

IN THE COURSE OF THIS, WE'VE HAD TO SUSPEND OUR EFFORT AGAINST ISIS, WHICH GIVES IT A CHANCE TO REGROUP.

AS MOST PEOPLE PERHAPS DON'T KNOW, THIS IS A WAR THAT WHERE THE UNITED STATES AND IRAN WERE UNFRIENDLY ALLIES, BUT WERE ALLIES AGAINST ISIS.

THAT'S RIGHT.

THAT'S RIGHT.

THERE ARE TRADE-OFFS.

AND I DO THINK THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR TAKING OUT A BAD GUY WITH BLOOD ON HIS HANDS WHERE IT CAN BE DONE.

I THINK THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR ESTABLISHING DETERRENTS.

IN THIS CASE, I LOOK AT THE TRADE-OFFS, AND I DON'T THINK THAT IT WAS WORTH IT, AND I THINK THE COSTS ARE MUCH GREATER THAN THE GAINS, AND I'D ALSO SAY THAT WE HAVEN'T EXPERIENCED THE COSTS YET.

I THINK THAT THERE WILL BE MORE THINGS BLOWN UP.

CLOSER TO, THAT WE HAVE ABOUT 15 SECONDS, 20 SECONDS LEFT.

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO SEE IN THE NEXT FEW WEEKS, NEXT FEW MONTHS?

I DON'T KNOW IF IT WILL BE IN THE NEXT FEW WEEKS.

I THINK IN THE NEXT FEW MONTHS, WE'RE GOING TO HAVE A SERIES OF ESCALATING THREATS AND CRISES OVER THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM, AND I THINK WE WILL HAVE SOME MYSTERIOUS EXPLOSIONS OR INCIDENTS THAT ARE PROBABLY -- THAT ARE GENERALLY ATTRIBUTED TO IRAN BUT WITHOUT QUITE CERTAINTY.

OKAY.

I WISH I HAD BETTER -- MORE OPTIMISTIC PREDICTIONS.

WE'LL SEE IF THAT HAPPENS.

WE'LL BRING YOU BACK.

HOPEFULLY WHEN SOMETHING LIKE THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN.

I HOPE SO.

OKAY, THNICK, THANK YOU SO MUCH.

GOOD TOBY WITH YOU.

Funders

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