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2 years after the U.S. killed Iran's Qasem Soleimani, tensions remain

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Two years ago today, the United States assassinated Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani was an Iranian general. But in Iran, he was more than that. He was the country's most powerful commander, a celebrity - considered the most important person in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Well, three days after his death, my producer and I landed in Tehran. We dropped our bags at our hotel and headed to his funeral at Tehran University.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

KELLY: We found people thronging the streets, weeping, chanting Khamenei himself praying over the body, while the crowds around him swore revenge. The assassination brought Iran and the U.S. to the brink of war. Two years on, we wanted to look at what the lasting impact has been, so we have brought in Karim Sadjadpour, Iran expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Good to speak with you. Happy New Year.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Great to be with you, and happy New Year to you.

KELLY: Let's start with the stated rationale for the killing. This was it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.

KELLY: Then-President Trump talking about plotting imminent and sinister attacks on Americans - the Trump team said they had to take him out to stop those attacks. Karim Sadjadpour, have we seen evidence to support that? Has the U.S. rationale held up?

SADJADPOUR: You know, Mary Louise, I have spoken to U.S. officials who have told me that there was private information that there were imminent attacks, but that was information which the public was never privy to. It was certainly the case that Iran was humiliating president Trump. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad had been under attack, and Trump was worried about another 1979 Iran hostage situation. And so there is no evidence to support Trump's assertion that there were imminent attacks, but we do know that President Trump was feeling humiliated by Iran.

KELLY: And in terms of what Iran did about it, I mentioned the calls for revenge. I want to play you just a little bit of what Iran's then Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told me. This was four days after Soleimani's killing.

JAVAD ZARIF: This was an act of aggression, an armed attack - albeit a cowardly armed attack - against an Iranian official in foreign territory. It amounts to war. And we will respond, according to our own timing and choice.

KELLY: Just hours after that interview where I sat down with Zarif, Iran unleashed missiles on Iraqi military bases where American troops were housed. Americans were injured. No one was killed. Beyond that, has Iran retaliated?

SADJADPOUR: You know, the way Iran retaliated that had the most lasting impact was actually shooting down a Ukraine Airways flight, which killed 176 people, which were mostly young Iranians, highly professional young diaspora Iranians. So the most devastating retaliation Iran tried to launch against the United States was actually self-inflicted and killed far more...

KELLY: And was a mistake, we should mention. They didn't mean to shoot this plane down.

SADJADPOUR: Absolutely. And so that quickly changed the mood inside Iran. I think the Iranian population quickly felt that, you know, they didn't want to get into another potential conflict situation. Today, Mary Louise, Iran's current president, Ebrahim Raisi, again vowed to take vengeance against Trump, against then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And so, as Javad Zarif alluded to you, Iran doesn't have a timeframe on these things. They say, you know, we're going to continue to exact revenge. And, you know, that is something which they leave open-ended - an open-ended threat to the United States.

KELLY: Did the killing to date substantially alter the overall dynamics of the region? Because that was also part of what the U.S. was trying to do and what the U.S. still would like to do - would like to see Iran and militants backed by Iran less active across the Middle East.

SADJADPOUR: So the killing of Soleimani, I think it certainly constrained Iran's capabilities. He was the tip of Iran's spear in the Middle East and the places where Iran wields enormous influence - in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. So his absence has certainly been felt. So on one hand, it's constrained Iran's capabilities, but it hasn't constrained Iran's will and influence. Up until now, Iran hasn't changed any of its regional policies. It continues to be deeply opposed to the United States, to Israel's existence, and it continues to cultivate these regional militias, which, you know, wield enormous power in those countries.

So I'm always reminded of an observation that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once made years ago. He said, you know, before he went into government, he thought the individual didn't really matter that much in history - that nations just follow their own interests regardless of who was there. But after he served in government, he realized what a profound impact the individual makes on history. And I think that's certainly the case in the case of Qasem Soleimani. He was a very unique figure in Iran, in the Middle East, who is not replaceable. But at the same time, Iran's long-time revolutionary ideology, its goals and its will to pursue that ideology hasn't been constrained by his absence.

KELLY: You said he's not replaceable, but who is his successor?

SADJADPOUR: So his successor is a guy called Esmail Qaani. And you can see the profound difference between Soleimani and Qaani, even if you look at the photographs. Qasem Soleimani was like a Shiite Che Guevara figure. He was a figure you could put on a billboard in Baghdad or in Beirut, and there was a certain gravitas that he had, a charisma that he had, which Esmail Qaani doesn't have. Esmail Qaani kind of looks like a disheveled accountant. So, you know, he's tried to follow in Soleimani's footsteps, but he doesn't have the gravitas, the charm or the incredible institutional memory and connections that Soleimani had.

KELLY: Well, let me circle us back more or less to where we began and where this leaves - the U.S.-Iran relationship. Would it be fair to say it's a little hard to point to exactly what this strike achieved for the U.S., but it's also true that the U.S. has not to date paid that huge of a price for it.

SADJADPOUR: That is true. The day Soleimani was killed, a lot of people were predicting World War III. That didn't pan out. At the same time, the Trump administration made the argument that this attack was going to deter further Iranian aggression. That also hasn't panned out. Iran continues to launch attacks against U.S. interests and allies in the Middle East. And I think that the Biden administration is going to continue to face a formidable foe in Iran. As long as Iran's organizing principle is to oppose the United States and oppose Israel, we the United States cannot make amends with a regime which wants us as an adversary for its own internal legitimacy.

KELLY: That is Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, speaking with us on this - the second anniversary of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. Karim Sadjadpour, thank you.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you so much.

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

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Sarah Handel