MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And we are tracking breaking news tonight. Iraqi state television is reporting that a powerful commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been killed in an airstrike at the airport in Baghdad. The government of Iran has not independently confirmed this news. The Pentagon has not confirmed it either, so we are treating it with caution. But these early reports indicate that the man in question is or was Major General Qasem Soleimani. I want to bring in Norman Roule now. He spent his career tracking Iran for the CIA. He retired as mission manager for Iran for the director of National Intelligence.
Norman Roule, welcome.
NORMAN ROULE: Good evening.
KELLY: If this is confirmed, this news, how significant would the killing of General Soleimani be?
ROULE: Well, the death of Qasem Soleimani would be significant, but I think it's also important to note that news reports state that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the senior-most lieutenant of Soleimani within the Iraqi military architecture, was also killed, as well as possibly a Lebanese Hezbollah official. In essence, you can expect seismic waves to go through the Shia communities of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. You can expect that the Iranians and the Iraqis will - Iraqi militia groups will certainly seek some sort of retribution. However, I also think it's significant because such an action would not be taken by the U.S., if, indeed, it did occur, unless...
KELLY: I was going to say we don't know yet. We don't have confirmation of this, and we don't know who these strikes were carried out by.
KELLY: Go on.
ROULE: But if the U.S. had conducted those strikes, it only would have done so had it had significant information that doing so would prevent the loss of lives; in short, that if it thought that a significant terrorist attack was underway or about to be undertaken by these individuals and if neutralizing these individuals would prevent that to save American lives and likely other lives of other nationals, that would be required for such an operation to...
KELLY: You're saying the U.S. would not have - or whoever carried out these strikes would not have done so on such senior targets without intelligence indicating why they might have been considering that. For those who are not following the region as closely as you have, just go - let me circle you back to General Soleimani. Who is he? What role has he played in Iran?
ROULE: Well, Qasem Soleimani is the head of an organization called the Quds Force or was the head of the organization called the Quds Force. That's sort of a mixture of our special operations and Central Intelligence Agency. He has been given charge of Iran's foreign policy in the region. And, in essence, he has used that authority to create a series of militias based off of the model of Lebanese Hezbollah. As a military commander, he would not actually rank in capacity or stature with a First-World (ph) military commander, such as a U.S. general. However, his political reach was vast and significant in that Iran basically ceded its regional activities to his purview.
KELLY: Yeah. The timing of this - whoever was responsible and whoever ends up being confirmed having been killed in these airstrikes - comes, of course, as we have watched a week of attacks and then counterattacks and then responses to that and then people trying to siege the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Just how does this fit in? What sort of escalation does it represent in the few seconds we have left?
ROULE: Well, again, I think the escalation was on the part of Iran. You - I think you have to look back a few more months. The secretary of state and others have spoken about the growing likelihood of Iranian attacks for some time, repeatedly warning the Iranians not to undertake this activity.
KELLY: OK. That is Norman Roule. We will leave it there for tonight - lots more to come as NPR tracks this story.
Norman Roule, former top Iran analyst, 34-year veteran of the CIA, thanks very much.
ROULE: My pleasure.
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