AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The news started trickling out last night.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We have hugely consequential breaking news at this hour. Iraqi state TV is reporting that a strike...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: We're talking tonight about the reported killing of someone the U.S. government considers one of the world's most dangerous terrorists.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Qassem Soleimani is the leader of a powerful elite branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that is called the Quds Force.
CORNISH: Then, a cryptic tweet from President Trump - no text, simply a picture of the American flag.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The question is whether or not this is a confirmation from the United States side, something we have not gotten yet.
CORNISH: And finally, just before 10 p.m., the Pentagon released a statement.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: It says, at the direction of the president, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: By killing Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.
CORNISH: That was part of the Pentagon's statement on the strike. Today, mourning in the streets of Tehran.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).
CORNISH: And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN the U.S. is committed to de-escalation in the region.
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MIKE POMPEO: President Trump's decision to remove Qassem Soleimani from the battlefield saved American lives. There's no doubt about that. He was actively plotting in the region to take actions - a big action, as he described it - that would have put dozens, if not hundreds, of American lives at risk.
CORNISH: Democrats swiftly questioned the ramifications of the strike. Here's Senator Chris Murphy in an interview on Morning Edition today.
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CHRIS MURPHY: The worry here, of course, is that this is actually going to get more Americans, not less Americans, killed. Is Qassem Soleimani more dangerous as a martyr than he was alive as the functional leader of the Quds Force? There will be reprisals.
CORNISH: And finally, in Florida this afternoon, President Trump addressed the nation about the strike.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.
CORNISH: Now we're going to bring in some of the NPR team covering this story since it broke last night. We have NPR's Tom Bowman - he covers the Pentagon - diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen and Franco Ordoñez, who covers the White House.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thank you.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be here.
CORNISH: Franco, I want to start with you. What have we heard from the president beyond the comments just now?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, he said that Soleimani had an imminent and sinister plot to kill Americans, and that's why he had to order the strike. He did not favor regime change, the president said, but that he was always going to protect Americans serving overseas. He said the United States was ready to take further action and even had some targets identified. He appeared to be, you know, responding to criticism against the attacks and the concerns that, as we heard from some of the Democrats, of dragging - of potentially dragging the United States into another war.
CORNISH: Tom, I want to follow up on this idea of identified targets. The killing of Soleimani came after several days of tense back-and-forth in the region. Can you walk us through the events that led up to this final strike?
BOWMAN: Well, first of all, Soleimani's been killing Americans for years, including U.S. soldiers in Iraq back more than 10 years ago, by using these very powerful bombs called EFPs, or explosively formed penetrators, which could rip through the toughest armor. I was reporting there at the time, and soldiers and Marines were definitely afraid of them. And there's been talk over the years of targeting Soleimani.
So why now? Because you have a more hardline administration. And U.S. officials say there were more and more rocket attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, including one that caused the death of an American contractor in recent weeks. And there was compelling intelligence of more imminent attacks, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others, principally in Iraq but also, officials say, possible attacks in Lebanon and Syria. So they decided to act. And Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley told reporters today some of the plots might still happen.
CORNISH: Franco, do we have a sense of how this decision was made?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, we're still pushing for a lot of those details. It was an option that was laid out earlier in the week. We know that from Senator Lindsey Graham, who was golfing with the president in Florida on Monday. They also met on Tuesday. But the groundwork was laid some time ago, when the administration listed the IRGC as a terrorist organization back in April. That's something that had been rejected by previous administrations, including President George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Here's Colin Kahl, who was one of Obama's national security advisers.
COLIN KAHL: What's interesting is that something changed in the equation inside the Trump administration. I don't know whether it came from the president himself or whether views changed at the top of the Pentagon. But that calculation of kind of being risk-averse - which had, I think, deterred both the Bush administration and the Obama administration from taking out Soleimani - something has changed.
ORDOÑEZ: So previous White Houses had worried about escalating - this escalating to war, and that carried over into the beginning of the Trump era. And that was at least till earlier this year.
CORNISH: And remind us - at this point, who is on the national security team advising the president on this issue now?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, it used to be John Bolton. He was known for being a hawk on Iran. He was fired earlier this year. He's been replaced by Robert O'Brien. President Trump is also taking advice from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has also been a steadfast hawk on Iran. You know, he continues to be very involved, as we heard earlier today. He was - he almost exclusively carried the administration message earlier today.
CORNISH: Michele Kelemen, can we talk about why Pompeo was out this morning talking about the attack and he said that he hopes this attack will de-escalate the situation? What's the logic there?
KELEMEN: Well, what he's hoping is that Iran will finally get a message that the U.S. is resolved to push back against Iran's bad behavior, which has been building up, as we've been hearing. One official quite confidently told us, quote, "We are now speaking in a language that the Iranian regime understands." But, you know, Iran's supreme leader is vowing forceful revenge, and many diplomats are worried that this is actually going to escalate much further and that there's not really much of an off-ramp here. The Swiss ambassador to Iran, who represents U.S. interests there, was summoned to the foreign ministry. The ambassador, we're told, passed a message from the U.S. The Iranians say they've responded, but we don't really know what's in those messages. All we know is that there is at least an open channel.
CORNISH: And Pompeo - has he been on the phone with his counterparts as well?
KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, he's been talking to lots of foreign ministers all over the globe, in the region and Europe. The French and the British foreign ministers, after their phone calls, called for restraint. They're also talking about ways to keep the Iranian nuclear program in check because, remember, the U.S. left the Iran nuclear deal.
And, you know, there's also a lot of concern about what happens now in Iraq. Many there are furious that the U.S. took this action on Iraqi soil, and they are calling on the U.S. to leave. Administration officials point out that, you know, a lot of Iraqis have been protesting recently against Iran's influence in the country and want the U.S. to stay. So diplomats are trying to work through all of this now, and Pompeo's been on the phone quite a bit.
CORNISH: In the meantime, how is the State Department bracing for a possible retaliation?
KELEMEN: Well, embassies across the Middle East have been beefing up security and have also been issuing these security alerts, urging Americans to remain vigilant. In Iraq, for instance, the U.S. is actually telling Americans to leave any way they can. So we've been seeing these kind of alerts coming across the region from embassies.
CORNISH: Before I let you all go, what are your final thoughts? What are you going to be looking for over the next several hours and days? I want to start with you, Tom Bowman.
BOWMAN: Well, a possible retaliation from Iran against U.S. soldiers or diplomats in the region, particularly in Iraq. The Iranian leaders have promised a forceful revenge. And also, as Michele was alluding to, the Iraqi parliament - they'll be debating whether U.S. forces should remain in the country. She said there's anger in - about the U.S. strikes that violated the country's sovereignty, they say.
CORNISH: Franco Ordoñez from the White House, what should we be watching for?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, one thing that stood out to me listening to Trump was how he appeared to be kind of laying out his doctrine for when he would take military action. This has been a president who has campaigned and worked to pull Americans out of conflicts in the Middle East. This could frankly do the opposite. Michael Singh, who was the Middle East director in the George W. Bush administration, told me that perhaps Iran misread the United States and thought it lacked the stomach to get more involved.
CORNISH: And Michele Kelemen, for you - I mean, you've been following the relationship between the U.S. and Iran for such a long time. What are you going to be looking for?
KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, I was struck by how confident the administration officials were today. You know, they said that they can't say for sure that they've broken this cycle of violence but that they don't think it'll be kind of as - this was the words of one - devilishly ingenuous as it was under Soleimani. So they really think that taking out Soleimani - that it won't be as an aggressive an Iran as we've seen before. But, you know, that's not what most other experts in the region have been saying, and I think the - a lot of embassies are certainly bracing for some sort of reaction in the days and weeks ahead.
CORNISH: One other thing - I know a lot - many people in Congress, especially Democrats, have been critical of the White House not reaching out to them in advance. Franco, did the White House have anything to say in defense of that?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, you're hearing from the White House in their response that this was something that they had to do. Democrats continue to criticize the president for not coming forward and alerting the so-called Gang of Eight. Oftentimes, it is kind of a courtesy call to alert these top members of the top committees on both sides of the aisle. The president doesn't - did not do that. Now, it is not obligatory to do that, but it is often seen as a kind of - you know, a good gesture to do that. The president has done - not done that. In the past, he has not done that, and he has said he's been worried about leaks. But that's certainly something that's going to be continued to be discussed.
CORNISH: That's Franco Ordoñez covering the White House.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
CORNISH: NPR's Tom Bowman on the Pentagon, thank you for your time.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
CORNISH: And Michele Kelemen covering the State Department, thank you.
KELEMEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.