MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
One year ago this weekend, my producer Becky and I were packing for a reporting trip to Iran. We had a story list a mile long, all these features we were going to do when boom - huge news broke.
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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: In a major escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the top Iranian general has been killed in an airstrike.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Qassem Soleimani, a revered Iranian general and one of that country's most powerful military leaders, is considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: He'd reportedly just gotten into Iraq from Beirut and was leaving Baghdad airport when he was killed in a convoy of vehicles along with a top Iraqi militia leader.
KELLY: A U.S. airstrike had killed Qassem Soleimani. And by the time we landed in Tehran, his portrait was everywhere - on huge billboards on the road in from the airport, painted on the sides of buildings, the front page of every paper.
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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in non-English language).
KELLY: At his funeral, at Tehran University, we waded into crowds holding up signs with the words hard revenge and hey, U.S., you started, we will end it. Suddenly, the possibility of the U.S. and Iran tipping into war felt very real.
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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting in non-English language).
KELLY: Well, with the eve of the one-year anniversary upon us, it seemed a good time to look at what has happened and what hasn't in the years since, and what U.S.-Iran relations might look like with a new U.S. president moving into the White House. Here with us now, NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and NPR's Peter Kenyon, who covers Iran from his base in Istanbul. Hey, you two.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Peter, let's start with those signs I just described that we saw one year ago on the streets of Tehran - hard revenge. What has that looked like? What has Iran done to avenge Soleimani's death?
KENYON: Within days of the assassination, Iran launched Operation Martyr Soleimani, which included a number of missile attacks mainly against the Al Asad base in western Iraq. Iraq had been warned of that attack in advance by Tehran, and there were no U.S. casualties, although eventually the Pentagon said more than a hundred military personnel had suffered traumatic brain injuries. The other response was actually an embarrassment for Tehran when Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a Ukrainian international airlines passenger jet, killing 176. Officials said Iran was on its highest state of military alert, denied responsibility for three days and then said, yes, it was human error.
Since then, we've been hearing lots of warnings, regular warnings of further revenge at some point in the future. It's not very clear whether they mean on the anniversary or sometime later. Meanwhile, the attacks keep coming. A nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed in an attack near Tehran in November. Iran blamed Israel, but said the U.S. must have known about it. And of course, historians will note that Iran has made news during presidential transitions before. I mean, the Iranian hostage taking in 1979 - 52 Americans taken from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is credited with dooming Jimmy Carter's reelection bid and ushering in the Ronald Reagan era.
KELLY: We recall, of course, that those hostages were released - right? - a moment of presidential transition as President Carter handed over the White House to Reagan. So parallels from 40 years ago. Let me follow and press you on what Iran has not done. You said we have watched to see if there would be further intense military reaction also on the nuclear front. And they have - in this past year, they've expanded their nuclear capabilities. They have not, though, at least as far as we know, raced towards building a nuclear weapon.
KENYON: They haven't. And the nuclear program, it almost seems to be on a separate track. The major event has been the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran agreed to big reductions in its program in exchange for sanctions being lifted. And then in 2018, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, reimposed sanctions. A year later, Iran began suspending its commitments, most notably jumping up its enrichment of nuclear fuel, is talking now about trying to get to 20% enrichment, still far from weapons grade. But beyond that, there is only 90% enrichment for a nuclear warhead.
KELLY: Greg, let's get you in here, the view from Washington. What does the U.S. say was achieved with the strike on Qassem Soleimani?
MYRE: Well, the U.S. eliminated a key Iranian general. He's been blamed for the death of hundreds of Americans over the past couple decades. The U.S. continues to impose sanctions as part of this maximum pressure campaign by President Trump. But the killing really hasn't substantially altered the overall dynamics of the region. I mean, the U.S. and Iran are still in this tense standoff. And we really have a perfect example here. Just in recent days, an Iraqi militia that's believed to be controlled by Iran fired 21 rockets into the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the U.S. Embassy is based on December 20. And that's exactly the kind of activity that Qassem Soleimani was accused of orchestrating. And it's still taking place now a year after his death.
KELLY: You mentioned the maximum pressure campaign, which has been the Trump administration's strategy toward Iran. And it has occurred to me that it presents a challenge for the U.S. Where do you go from maximum pressure?
KELLY: Well, I think we can expect Biden to move away from this maximum pressure campaign. I mean, we should note, it's put Iran in a tough spot. The U.S. sanctions, the low oil prices, COVID, a weak currency have all really hemmed in Iran and a lot of ways. But Biden has never been a fan of this, and he's going to try to restore the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran is willing. And I spoke about this with Norm Roule. He was a longtime CIA official who was focused on the Middle East and Iran in particular.
NORM ROULE: I think the fastest way to return to the deal would be to initiate sort of a freeze for freeze. Iran would freeze additional expansion of its nuclear deal. We would freeze new sanctions against Iran. You could see a phase one agreement occurring.
KELLY: So one idea there for how diplomacy with Iran might resume under a Biden administration. Peter, quick - just response to you from what we were hearing there for Greg on the state of U.S. allies. This has been a big plank of Trump administration policy has been trying to get, say, European allies to also quit the nuclear deal with Iran.
KENYON: Well, it has to no effect. I mean, quite the contrary, the Europeans turned around and said, no, you need to get back in it. And now it looks like Biden will get back in it. So this should be quite satisfying as a first step for the European allies. Where that goes from there, of course, will depend on Iran's reaction and what further steps are actually taken. Getting back into the deal, as it was, is one thing. And that's what Iran is saying it's willing to accept as a first step. And then it would seem new talks would be required, and then that could be a bumpy road indeed.
KELLY: And real quick last question to each of you. How tense should we be about what might happen in these next three weeks? Asking because President Trump has been making threatening rumblings on Twitter.
KENYON: Well, that would be the ratcheting of tensions to an extreme point if there were an attack from the U.S. at this point. And obviously, simply because the anniversary is coming, you have to be very watchful as to what Iran gets up to.
MYRE: The U.S. military has really been sending strong signals, flying B-52s and other planes into the region, sending a real signal of deterrence, warning Iran not to take any action? So anything could happen. Don't want to take anything out of the realm of possibility, but there is - been quite a bit of preparation just to guard against any type of violent action that might come in the next few weeks.
KELLY: We have been talking with Greg Myre, who covers national security for NPR, and Peter Kenyon, who covers Iran for us. Thanks to you both.
KENYON: Thank you.
MYRE: Thank you, Mary Louise.
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