STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's bring Douglas Ollivant into the conversation. He was the director for Iraq at the National Security Council at the White House during both the Bush and Obama administrations. Welcome back to the program.
DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Do you feel you understand why the United States struck now?
OLLIVANT: No. I think the timing is somewhat mysterious. Unless there was clear intelligence showing that these two were about to direct something - and again I said two. It's not just Qassem Soleimani. Also killed in this strike was Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the very senior militia commander in Iraq who was very, very closely aligned with Qassem Soleimani. We think he was at the airport to greet him, you know, just like you'd see a senior executive coming to see the company CEO, say. So both of these men were killed. It's unclear if this was simply their time had run out, the recent attacks simply ended U.S. patience, and that's why they were killed or if there was something happening looking forward, and this was preventive in nature.
INSKEEP: Oh, this is interesting because the United States would like this kind of military strike to be proportional. Iran is doing something violent; the U.S. wants to respond, not go too far. They want to have a proportional response. I think I'm hearing you say that based on what we knew Iran had previously done, this doesn't seem proportional. It's an escalation. Is that right?
OLLIVANT: Well, it's certainly not proportional. I mean, Qassem Soleimani in Iran is this huge figure. We've never had anything like it in the United States. So it's hard for us to picture this, but picture a four-star general of, say, a Petraeus or Stan McChrystal's public prominence but who is utterly beloved by almost everyone and also happens to be the best friend of the president. And that's kind of what you have in what Qassem Soleimani was.
INSKEEP: And it's clear to you that as grimly as he was regarded by much of the rest of the world, that he was beloved within Iran.
OLLIVANT: The Iranians saw him as a national hero. I don't think that's a controversial statement.
INSKEEP: OK. Well, let's think about what's been happening the last several months. Iran has struck at U.S. interests in various ways throughout the region over the last several months, presumably calculating that President Trump doesn't want a full-scale war, which the president has more or less said anyway. They've calculated they can get away with these strikes and the U.S. will not be too severe in its response. Now we have the United States making this strike on Iran. Is the U.S. now the one gambling that Iran doesn't truly want a full-scale war?
OLLIVANT: Well, it certainly appears that's the case, and we'll see what happens in the next week. You know, Iran, off the top of my head, has about four places it could choose to respond. It could choose to respond in Iraq itself with the forces that are aligned with its interests there. And there are U.S. - about 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq that could be targeted. They could do attack in - via their Lebanese proxies against Israel, throw missiles against Israel. Again, they could attack Saudi oil infrastructure, as we saw earlier this year, or they could simply decide to dial up on their nuclear program, leave any pretense of being in the JCPOA and start refining their nuclear materials to a much higher level. I think any or all of those are distinctly possible. It's important to note, though, all of those responses are contained to the region. Iran's a regional power. It's not as if they have power to project into Europe, let alone the United States.
INSKEEP: OK. Nevertheless, there is this tense situation. The United States, of course, has been imposing, as Greg Myre said, a maximum pressure campaign on Iran. It wants Iran to feel a great deal of pressure. Iran has clearly wanted to retaliate for that. Could either side see an interest in backing off at this moment?
OLLIVANT: You never know when someone's going to decide the escalation calculus is too high - this has simply gotten too high a price for what I'm trying to do here and decides to back down. It is possible that the Iranians are at that point. I doubt it. I suspect that we're going to see them come back with some type of response to this. But it could be. These things are extremely delicate, and you just don't know. Anyone who tells you that they know where this is going now, I think, is either a fool or a liar. We're in deeply uncharted territory, and things could - I mean, it is very possible that this could work out very well for the United States. It's also distinctly possible this could work out poorly for the United States.
INSKEEP: Might it be possible that Iran will calculate the U.S. still doesn't want a full-scale war and so Iran can do some quite severe responses?
OLLIVANT: That's entirely possible.
INSKEEP: Mr. Ollivant, thank you very much for your insights, really appreciate it.
OLLIVANT: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: Douglas Ollivant is a senior fellow at the New America think tank. He was previously the director for Iraq at the National Security Council under both the Bush and Obama administrations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.