6 Iraq Militia members killed. TRANSCRIPT: 1/3/20, The Rachel Maddow Show.
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST, “ALL IN”: Thank you.
That is “ALL IN” for this evening.
THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now.
Good evening, Rachel.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris.
HAYES: You got it.
MADDOW: Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
So, it all came to light in 2011, in October of 2011 with this indictment
in federal court in the Southern District of New York. And with this
surprise mid-afternoon news conference from the U.S. Department of Justice,
a news conference attended by both the attorney general himself and the FBI
director at the time, as well as the U.S. attorney for the Southern
District of New York and other Justice Department senior officials, the
plot they described at this news conference and the plot that was described
in that indictment was so over the top, it almost didn`t seem serious. It
was such a like low-rent, bad action movie juvenile plot that it was hard
to square with the sort of seriousness with which it was presented.
I mean, the scheme that they laid out was this. There was a drug cartel, a
drug gang in Mexico called Los Zetas, Z-E-T-A-S, Zetas. And the DEA, Drug
Enforcement Administration, to a certain extent had infiltrated this gang,
the Zetas. The DEA at least had informants working for them who were
living and working as members of this gang, right?
But secretly reporting back to the DEA what was going on inside the gang
which itself is interesting in terms of a sort of law enforcement drama
prospect, right? But one day, in May of 2011 one of these guys who was
secretly working for the DEA as an informant inside this drug gang, he made
arrangements to talk to his DEA handler, and he told his handler in the DEA
something that felt like it was like visiting from another planet. It was
a plot from a totally different movie, something that would seem totally
off-the-wall for what was already a pretty dramatic situation.
Quote, the case began in May when a Drug Enforcement Administration
informant with ties to high-level leers of Los Zetas told agents of a
bizarre conversation. He had been approached, he said, by an Iranian
friend of his aunts in Corpus Christi, Texas. The friend had a proposition
for him – a proposition to hire the drug cartel to carry out terrorist
attacks inside the United States.
Wait, what now? Which movie is this?
Over the Christmas break, Susan and I went to the movie theater to go see
“Little Women” because we`re middle-aged lesbians, it`s mandatory. But
we`re in a theater right next to “Star Wars”. So, we saw little star women
wars, it was definitely the best iteration of both movies.
This was definitely, this is kind of the same thing. This is two totally
different action movies crammed into the same thing. Wait, I thought this
was the movie about the infiltration of the drug gang with the secret DEA
informants – no, no, it`s the Iranians hiring the drug gang to carry out
terrorist attacks in the United States. Yes, both of those movies squashed
The guy who everybody thinks who is in the drug gang who is secretly
working for the DEA as a double agent, he in real life has an aunt in
Corpus Christi and his aunt in Corpus Christi has a friend, an Iranian guy,
who I kid you not is used car salesman.
His 56 years old, his name was Mansour Arbabsiar, I think is how you see
it. He told everybody to call him Jack. He sold Hondas and Acuras from
what apparently was a disorganized car lot in Corpus Christi, Texas. He
had a couple of minor pops including driving without a license and a check
scheme. That seemed to be kind of no big deal. Those charges were
ultimately got dropped.
But otherwise, he was literally a random used car dealer in Texas, named
Jack, had wife named Esperanza, right? But Jack had a friend, this woman
in Corpus Christi who it turns out had a nephew who everybody believed was
in Los Zetas, this terrible drug gangs. He was secretly a DEA agent inside
the drug gang, and the way he laid it out to his handlers was his aunt`s
friend this car dealer Jack came to him because he thought he was in this
drug gang and he tried to hire him to do something absolutely unbelievable.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: An alleged $1.5 million plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia`s
ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, a veteran diplomat and King Abdullah`s right-
hand man by blowing him up in an undetermined Washington restaurant and
bombing the Saudi embassy in Washington. U.S. officials tell NBC News a
secondary plot was to target Israel`s embassy in Washington.
The accused an Iranian born U.S. citizen, Mansour Arbabsiar, was arraigned
in Manhattan this afternoon. A co-conspirator named in the indictment
remains at large. But the administration says Iran`s government was behind
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Iran`s government was behind it all but it involves this Texas car
dealer and Mexico and drug – what?
I mean, this all happened in the fall of 2011 and it hovers somewhere
between super scary and almost laughable, right? I mean, on the one hand,
there`s this somewhat feckless used car salesman, call me, Jack, lives in
Corpus Christi, thinks he`s making contact with the Mexican drug cartel,
he`s really accidently making contact with the DEA information inside the
Mexican drug cartel.
And what he tells that guy of all guys is that his cousin is a big deal in
the Iranian military, and his cousin and his colleagues in the Iranian
military have conveyed to Jack, the feckless used car salesman, that
they`ll pay good money for him to arrange for an assassination and a few
strategic bombings to be carried out on behalf of the nation of Iran. And
could he please arrange for the Mexican drug cartel to do it?
In the proposed deal, the drug gang would set off bombs at two foreign
embassies in Argentina. The embassy of Saudi Arabia in Argentina and the
embassy of Israel in Argentina. They would also bomb the embassy of Israel
in Washington, D.C., and according to the plot, they would kill with a bomb
the Saudi ambassador to the United States, while he was eating dinner at a
restaurant in Washington, D.C.
So that`s what the DEA handler for this informant inside Los Zetas hears
from his informant. The DEA hear – DEA guy – the DEA hears of this
proposal from, you know, aunt`s friend Jack. It`s like what do you do if
you`re a guy who`s the double agent inside the gang comes to you and says,
I have been made – I have been made an offer, I have been offered this
proposal. It`s a little bit outside my wheel house. I didn`t think this
was the kind of thing I was here to work on.
But with now the blessing of the DEA, he basically goes ahead with it, goes
back to Jack the used car dealer guy and says, you know, OK, I got to talk
to a few guys, but this seems good, let`s go ahead with it. The U.S.
government totally knows about it.
The FBI obviously is brought in. They know about this from the earliest
stages because it`s this DEA informant who`s been approached with this
proposal, because the FBI is in on it, the U.S. government knows what`s
happening here, they`re allowing this plot to go forward but monitoring it
every step of the way. All the subsequent meetings and calls with this car
salesman Jack are recorded.
But as outlandish and ridiculous as the plot sounds, as unnecessary
convoluted and bizarre as the plot sounds, it kind of checks out. Each
step – each step of it keeps advancing. The used car salesman guy and the
guy who`s supposedly in the drug gang, they agree that the price for Los
Zetas to carry out these bombings and assassination will be $1.5 million.
The guy who`s supposedly in the Zetas drug gang says he needs some of the
money up front and it comes through. Jack the used car salesman guy comes
up with a big chunk of the money, wires about 100 grand in two separate
money transfers to this guy who believes is in the Los Zetas drug gang.
The feds are able to follow the source of that money for the money
transfers, and indeed, it checks out. They say the account from which
those funds originate is in fact linked to Iran, linked to the Quds Force,
part of the Revolutionary Guard in the Iranian military. Remember, Jack
the used car salesman said he had a cousin who was in the Iranian military.
Turns out he actually does. He in fact has a cousin who`s in the Quds
Force in Iraq. And the FBI is monitoring him every step of the way as he
proceeds with this outlandish plot.
And again, it just keeps checking out. Jack the used car salesman guy
travels to Iran where in fact he meet with his cousin who really is in the
Quds Force. He meets with another official from the Quds Force as well.
And he stays in touch with his contact who he thinks is this guy in the
Mexican drug gang.
And the drug gang guy tells him that the Zetas are onboard with this,
they`re going to do it, but they`re going to need more of the money up
front, a 100 grand up front is not enough. This is such a big job.
They`re either going to need more money up front or some other form of
collateral before they go ahead with this plot, because they want to make
sure they`re going to get paid.
Jack the used car salesman says, OK, I can do that. The priority here is
to get this done and done fast so he tells them, basically, I`ll be your
collateral. I`m going to – I`m in Iran right now meeting with my cousin,
right, and this other guy in the Quds Force who are directing me to do
this. I`m going to fly from here to Mexico to meet you. You can have me,
Jack, the used car salesman. You can have me physically as collateral, as
proof of our intent to pay. And you can keep me physically until you carry
out this assassination and then I will make sure you get wired the rest of
the money and at that point you can let me go, and that`s how they`re going
And in fact he does it. The used car salesman guy flies from Tehran to
Mexico City, and, of course, the U.S. government is recording all his
communications. They`re following him every step of the way. They give
the Mexican government a heads up this guy is flying in from Iran at the
U.S. government`s heads up and request.
The Mexican government denies the guy entry and says, no, you will not be
allowed to enter Mexico. You have to go back to where you came from. But,
look, they say we`ve made it very convenient for you. We`re going to fly
you back to Iran but we have to fly you – it just has a quick lay over in
New York City. It`s just a logistical thing. I`ll just be a quick stop.
No worries. Just a little lay over, you`ll be back in Tehran in no time.
And, of course, they specifically routed his return trip through JFK
Airport in New York city because waiting for him on the tarmac at JFK
airport in New York City was the FBI. Grabbed him off the plane, arrested
him and charged him with serious stuff, murder for hire, international
The guy initially pleads not guilty but soon changes his mind, whereupon
the Justice Department was able to crow about what he admitted to in this
Quote: In connection with his guilty plea, Arbabsiar admitted that from the
spring of 2011 to fall of 2011, he conspired with officials in the Iranian
military who were based in Iran to cause the assassination of the Saudi
Arabian ambassador while the ambassador was in the United States.
Arbabsiar acknowledged that at the direction of these coconspirators, he
traveled to Mexico on multiple occasions during 2011 in order to arrange
the assassination of the ambassador. Arbabsiar also admitted that in
connection with this plot, he was recruited, funded and directed by men he
understood to be senior officials in Iran`s Quds Force.
He said these Iranian officials were aware of and approved of the use of
his contact from the drug cartel in connection with the plot as well as
payments to that person. Also, they approved of the means by which the
ambassador would be killed in the United States and the bystander
casualties that would result.
Arbabsiar said that he met several times in Iran with Ali Gholam Shakuri, a
co-conspirator and an Iran-based member of the Quds Force, as well as
another senior Quds Force official, where Arbabsiar explained that the plan
was to blow up a restaurant in the United States frequented by the
ambassador. He also explained that numerous bystanders would be killed.
The plan was approved by these officials.
In conjunction with this criminal case that named member of the Quds Force
whose name I just struggled through there, Ali Gholam Shakuri, he was also
criminally charged by the U.S. Department of Justice. Also in conjunction
with this case, the U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions on officials from
the Quds Force, including the long time leader of the Quds Force, Qasem
Soleimani, whose name is now very familiar to you. He yesterday was killed
in the drone strike outside the Baghdad airport, with consequences that
remain to be seen to put it mildly.
Now at the time this bizarre plot was unveiled in 2011 and into 2012 when
the guy finally pled guilty, it seemed just as nuts then as it does now.
As I`m recounting to you all these years later and it seems nuts, wait.
It`s the Iranian government, this elite military force using some guy in
the Quds Force`s cousin who`s a used car dealer to contact a drug cartel,
and the drug cartel is going to take money from the Iranian military
through the used car dealer to blow up all these embassies and kill an
ambassador in a busy D.C. restaurant and there`s going to be bystanders,
and that kind of high risk complex operation, they`re pulling off through
these guys? For the one guy who can`t even tell that the one guy he`s
meeting with in Los Zetas is actually a DEA informant, really?
The secretary of state at the time, whose named Hillary Rodham Clinton,
told “The Associated Press” in an interview about this plot and about these
criminal charges, quote: Nobody could make that up, right?
The FBI director at the time, you may recognize him. You saw him there at
the press conference announcing these charges. He said at the press
conference announcing these charges, that, yes, this seems like the plot of
a Hollywood movie.
National security reporters at “The New York Times” who were covering the
story put a sort of finer point on that analysis by saying this didn`t just
seem like a Hollywood movie, it specifically seemed like a Quentin
Tarantino movie, as in it`s that over the top.
And experts on Iran, experts on the capabilities of the Quds Force and on
international terrorism, they just couldn`t quite figure out what to do to
make of this plot, which seemed both dangerous and also preposterous.
Reporters kept getting experts on the record saying things like, this was
extreme and very odd but it was also very sloppy.
Experts describing this as a high-risk, low-yield maneuver. Quote: It is
sensational, it is odd, and if it is true, it is very provocative on Iran`s
part. One expert calling it simply baffling, baffling that Iran`s Quds
Force would actually be involved with a plot this baroque and ridiculous.
But you know what? In modern history, in the last decade, this is what
we`ve got in terms of our American concrete nuts and bolts understanding
about whether the Quds Force and Iran more broadly had actually developed
the ambition and any capability to project force in the United States in
that kind of a way, to carry out assassinations inside the United States
and bombings inside the United States to benefit the government of Iran.
And, of course, that plot as laid out in that criminal case was as surreal
as it was anything else, but now, that recent history suddenly is the
closest thing we`ve got to an answer to what is now a very pressing
question that is on the minds of millions of Americans tonight, which is,
what are Iran`s capabilities? What kind of force can Iran project if they
do want to inflict maximum damage on Americans, if they want to incur
maximum fear and terror among Americans, if they want to exact maximum
revenge on the United States and its people for the U.S. military killing
the head of the Quds Force with the drone strike in Iraq reportedly ordered
by the president?
I mean, the Quds Force is taken very seriously for a reason. They stood up
Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and various militia force – excuse me,
various militia forces and military forces that have kept Syrian dictator
Bashar al Assad in power in Syria all of these years despite all the odds
stacked against him. I mean, they stood up the Mahdi army that was such a
fearsome and deadly Shiite militia adversary for U.S. troops fighting in
the Iraq war for years, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen.
Iran has exerted incredible influence and control and military reach beyond
its borders, through irregular warfare, through training, through the
provision of weapons and terrorism and political influence, over the course
of decades in some cases all masterminded through the Quds Force which was
run for the last 20 plus years by Qasem Soleimani, who`s the man who was
just killed by U.S. forces yesterday.
And so, now, of course, the Iranian government is vowing revenge in the
most dramatic possible terms. And everybody in the world is expecting that
they mean that.
And against that incredibly serious and sobering international track record
that we know, in terms of the way Iran has been able to project force and
terror around the world, particularly using the capabilities of the Quds
Force which Soleimani led until yesterday – I mean, the actual evidence
that we`ve got of their past effort to mount a plot here in the United
States really is this ridiculous Tarantino-esque plot where the code name
for the assassination was Chevrolet because him being a used car salesman,
he`d also be talking about Chevrolets, never mind that he basically sold
Acuras. You know, and the drug cartel DEA informant being his guy in the
drug cartel. And the guy blissfully accepting his diversion to JFK airport
so he could be arrested on the tarmac because every step of the way he`s
being watched and recorded and it was all on tape and all being watched
from the beginning, and from the very first instance where he made that
first contact until he got arrested, it was just a matter of months and the
FBI was in on it every step of the way.
I mean, the bad news from this history is that we`ve got evidence from
within the past ten years of what appears to have been an effort by Iran
using Quds Force operators to try to kill people and blow up embassies and
mount a high level political assassination in the United States of America,
in our capital city. That`s the bad news. The good news about it is that
that was their freaking idea, which was ridiculous.
So how do we square our realistic sense of the types of threats we have now
invited with this action that has now been taken by the U.S. government?
How do we understand that just as civilian Americans and what a war with
Iran might look like and what that means for us and our country?
I mean, we can understand some of the risks and some of the things that
might happen in short order in terms of what`s close to Iran much more
easily, right? There`s the Strait of Hormuz, this geographic choke point
in global oil supplies, where Iran has frequently demonstrated its
capability to use basically conventional military force and threats to
strangle the flow of Middle Eastern, with all of the international
implications that has.
In June of this year, we saw Iran shoot down a U.S. surveillance drone.
We`ve seen international oil tankers harassed and delayed and attacked.
“The Washington Post” tonight reports in some sobering detail about what`s
believed to be Iran`s considerable capabilities when it comes to cyber war.
Quoting from “The Post” tonight, Iran`s cyber troops long have been among
most capable and aggressive, disrupting banking, hacking oil companies,
even trying to take control of a dam from afar, while typically stopping
short of the most crippling possible actions. That the American air strike
that killed one of Iran`s top generals, Quds Force commander, Major General
Qasem Soleimani, now threatens to unleash a fully unshackled Iranian
response, warn analysts and former U.S. officials.
Quote: Hackers with ties to Tehran can potentially hijack crucial machinery
over the Internet, a tactic they experimented with at a New York state dam
whose control systems they penetrated in 2013. Or they can target
sensitive political or diplomatic targets, while mounting sophisticated
information operations over social media platforms. In October, Microsoft
accused a group tied to the Iranian government of attempting to identify,
attack and breach personal e-mail accounts associated with a U.S.
The messaging from the U.S. government at this point is not going to help
you get a realistic sense of the risk that has now been incurred and of
what else might happen next here. I mean, it`s all over the place and
bears all the hallmarks of the Trump administration and communications.
The president himself today making public remarks about the killing of
Soleimani in which he said the action was to stop a war, not to start one.
OK. Which war?
The defense secretary has been briefing U.S. allies abroad about the action
after the fact, which is much less valuable to them than briefing them
before the fact given that they`re as likely to incur reprisals from Iran
as we are. And we obviously knew about it in advance because we did it,
but we didn`t share that information with our allies so they could also
harden their targets and protect their civilians. A number of our overseas
allies are making that dissatisfaction known now.
Around the time that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today was insisting for
the 50th time that the U.S. is committed to de-escalating the situation
with Iran, that`s why we assassinated their number one military commander.
We got word first from the “Reuters” news service today there has
apparently been yet another new U.S. airstrike also in Iraq, also targeting
pro-Iranian forces, Shiite led pro-Iranian militias.
NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is in Iraq tonight. He
notes in response that this is not the sort of news you would expect if the
U.S. government were actually pursuing de-escalation, which also tying this
reported air strike tonight to an event tomorrow in Iraq which should
probably be on all of our radar.
Quote: Iraqi security official tells NBC News, there`s been another air
strike, this one north of Baghdad targeting Shiite militia leaders, reports
of six killed, this right before a big Shiite protest tomorrow in Baghdad.
Quote, it seems certain to provoke an escalation.
Richard Engel is going to join us live next from northern Iraq.
But thousands more U.S. troops are being sent into the region as of today.
U.S. civilians today were told to get out of Iraq immediately. Former U.N.
ambassador and former U.S. national security advisor, Susan Rice, is also
going to join us live momentarily tonight.
This is time of profound uncertainty. But in terms of assessing the risk
and think about who`s in danger, thinking about Americans who are newly on
the front lines tonight in the way that they weren`t before the Iranian
government was vowing severe revenge against the United States for this
killing, just consider tonight that whatever you think of us here at home
and our risk here, there are thousands of Americans right now, American
service members rights now tonight as we speak in Iraq and in Syria and in
Qatar and in Bahrain and in Kuwait and in the United Arab Emirates,
thousands of American troops there.
And for us here at home, honestly, it is very hard for us to have any sort
of realistic understanding of whether here in the U.S. we should worry
about being within the reach of the kind of retaliation that Iran is
threatening now. But it`s not an abstract or hypothetical or sort of
extrapolated concern for all of these thousands of Americans who are
serving in all these places who we know tonight are absolutely within reach
of the kind of proxy forces that Iran has been cultivating in the region
for decades. And that of course really makes you hope that somebody has
thought this thing through, the second order or third order consequences.
And there`s no reason for us to have confidence in that, I think. But
there`s reason to hope for that.
Much more to come tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: In Tehran today after the U.S. air strike that yesterday killed
the head of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, people marched in Tehran
streets today burning U.S. and British flags, holding photos of Soleimani,
shouting anti-U.S. slogans. You see them there burning an Israeli flag.
This was Soleimani`s hometown today, tens of thousands of people in the
streets. Iraq`s supreme leader visited that hometown, visited Soleimani`s
relatives, vowed there would be in his words harsh revenge for the U.S.
killing Soleimani. Iran`s foreign minister told reporters today that Iran
now has the right to respond to the killing at any time and in any manner.
Meanwhile, there were reports from Baghdad this evening of new U.S.
airstrikes targeting an Iranian backed militia. NBC News chief foreign
correspondent Richard Engel was in Iraq tonight. He notes in response that
this new attack with six reported dead comes on the eve of what`s expected
to be a big Shiite protest tomorrow in Baghdad. Richard saying, quote, it
seems certain to provoke an escalation.
Richard Engel joins us now from Irbil, northern Iraq.
Richard, it is great to have you with us tonight. Thanks for being here.
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: It`s absolutely great
to talk to you on an important night. And I was listening to your
introduction and I think you and a lot of other people are now sitting back
scratching your head saying, what did we just get into, what did president
Trump just provoke, or what`s going to be the response?
And you laid out that case, a Keystone cops kind of case when the Quds
Force allegedly tried to carry out this assassination in the United States.
The Quds Force is not very good at that kind of thing. It is not the kind
of organization that blows up shopping malls or carries out attacks in the
United States. It just isn`t really built for that kind of thing. It
doesn`t really project power in that kind of way.
But what it does do and what it is exceptionally good at is finding allies
in the region operating in its own territory, operating specifically in the
Middle East. But reaching out very specifically to a subset of groups
within the Middle East, forging alliances with other Shia groups.
So, it`s very powerful but it is also very specific. So it was able to
forge this alliance in Lebanon with Hezbollah. Now, Hezbollah was an
independent organization that was fighting against Israel, but it needed
help. It needed expertise. Iran was there to embrace it and nurture it
and so was Qasem Soleimani. That was his role, his special purpose in the
Also, the government of Syria, the government of Syria also has very close
relations with the Shia. There are a lot of Alawites, sort of offshoot of
Shia. Qasem Soleimani saw that the government of Bashar al Assad was weak,
needed help, reached out, formed this relationship in Syria, a very
In Iraq where the majority people are Shia. The government there Qasem
Soleimani naturally found an ally and set up very, very deep roots.
There are Shia in parts of Afghanistan. Iran is powerful there.
So where Iran is powerful is where it had natural allies. And the concern
is now those natural allies are going to use this moment to fight back, to
defend their former patron in this much larger region.
So when people are looking back – looking out now and saying what just
happened, what do we do, the danger is I don`t think so much authorize
going to be a massive attack in the United States against civilians. There
could be attacks against U.S. military, against U.S. diplomatic facilities.
I think Iran would see that as fair game.
But much more likely, those attacks would take place in the region,
destabilizing attacks to try and drive American forces out of this region,
because that really is what this is all about. Iran does not want to have
a big American presence in Iraq, which after all at the end of the day is
right on Iran`s border. So the danger, the real risk is that we`re going
to see further instability in the Middle East with the U.S. dragged into
yet another war.
President Trump has said time and time again, he doesn`t want more wars.
He wants to get out of wars. By doing this while it might feel good to a
lot of people and Qasem Soleimani has plenty of American blood on his
hands, he was responsible for helping orchestrate a campaign against U.S.
troops in Iraq during the – during the most intense days of the Iraq
campaign that killed hundreds – hundreds of American troops.
But was it the smart thing to do, or will it just inflame a cycle of
Now, with that sort of preamble about what the Quds Force is not good at.
Not good at using drug cartels to kill the Saudi ambassador at I believe it
was an Italian restaurant in Washington – not so good at that. Very good
at leveraging its power in the Middle East to go work against U.S.
interests particularly when there are lots of Shias in the area. That`s
what it`s very good at. And that`s why tomorrow, watch what happens in
Baghdad, because the Shia militia, these same Shia militias who have been
nurtured and encouraged and trained to a certain degree by Qasem Soleimani
are going to be going out on the streets and protesting in two
neighborhoods, starting at 7:00 in the morning, local Baghdad time.
One of them is strict Shia neighborhood where they hold protests all the
time. It`s not likely to come into conflict with anybody else because the
only people in that area are other Shias. The Americans don`t go there, no
The other neighborhood where they`re going to hold this protest is right
across from the Green Zone, right across one bridge from where the U.S.
embassy is. And the U.S. embassy now has been operating on orders, strict
orders that if anyone approaches the embassy, the troops inside there will
respond with force, will respond potentially with deadly force. That means
if they`re attacked, they`re going to start shooting at people.
And tomorrow those Shia militias, who again were attacked tonight – first
their patron was attacked, then those militias were attacked in a follow-on
attack this evening. They`re going to be out on the streets tomorrow.
They`re already upset. Now they`ve been hit twice, and they`re going to be
protesting in two locations, one of which is right across from the U.S.
MADDOW: Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent. Richard, I
know this has been a very, very long day and tomorrow is going to be a very
long day as well. Good luck covering all this. And thanks for being with
us tonight, my friend.
Richard joining us from Irbil, in northern Iraq. I will tell you something
that you should know. The Iranian ambassador to the United Nations did an
interview with NBC News tonight in which he was asked about what the world
should expect in terms of these promises of Iranian retaliation. One of
the things he said in response was this, Soleimani was not only popular in
Iran, he has his supporters in different countries. And Iran is not
responsible for anything those supporters might act.
So I said I do not know when, I do not know where, I do not know how the
reaction by those who have seen an illegitimate action against Qasem
Soleimani. But that`s the Iranian ambassador to the U.N. tonight saying,
listen, yes, we`re going to respond but I can tell you right now that other
people and other countries who feel strongly about this assassination, they
might, too, and we can`t be held responsible for what they do.
Anyway, we`ve got much more to get to tonight. Obama national security
advisor Susan Rice will be joining us live in just a moment, herself a
former U.N. ambassador.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: George W. Bush was president, the year 2007. General Stanley
McChrystal was then the head of U.S. Special Forces and he had a shot.
This is how he tells it, quote: I`d become accustomed to making tough
choices, but on a January 9th in 2007, the choice was particularly tricky.
Whether or not to attack a convoy that included Qasem Soleimani, the head
of Iran`s elite Quds Force.
There was good reason to eliminate Soleimani at the time. Iranian-made
roadside bombs built and deployed at his command were claiming the lives of
U.S. troops across Iraq. But to avoid a fire fight and the contentious
politics that would follow, I decided that we should monitor the caravan
and not strike immediately. By the time the convoy had reached Irbil,
Soleimani had slipped away into the darkness.
It was 2007. Other presidents, other U.S. military commanders under other
U.S. presidents have since had their own chance to take that same shot.
But every president who`s had that opportunity has decided that it was in
America`s best interest not to take it. Every president before this one.
The “A.P.” today spoke with former U.S. officials who said the fear about
the dangers of a targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani, that fear persisted
beyond that one opportunity in 2007 described by Stanley McChrystal to
potentially take Soleimani out. That fear extended certainly into the
Former officials telling the “A.P.” that their determination in terms of
U.S. national interests was that, quote, Soleimani was just as dangerous
dead and martyred as he was alive and plotting against Americans. Until
now, apparently, that was the calculus inside the U.S. government in the
military, weighing whether it was more dangerous for the U.S. to kill this
guy than it was to let him live.
That was the calculus in the Bush administration, also reportedly the same
calculus by U.S. military leaders in the Obama administration. These other
presidents, both Republican and Democrat, decided it was America`s best
interest to let Soleimani live, it would be more dangerous to kill him.
So why did this president decide something more different? Is taking out
Soleimani now perceived by the U.S. government to be less risky than they
thought it would have been in the past, less dangerous for America than
they thought it would have been before? Or is it the Trump administration
still thinks it`s just as risky, just as dangerous but this White House
just doesn`t care as much about that risk in the way past White Houses and
past presidents have cared?
Joining us next for the interview is somebody who has considerable
experience weighing these kinds of risks for the United States. Susan Rice
was ambassador to the U.N. She was national security advisor in the Obama
administration. She`s our guest for the interview, next.
MADDOW: Joining us now for “The Interview” is Susan Rice, ambassador to
the U.N. and then national security advisor in the Obama administration.
She`s the author of “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting
Ambassador Rice, thanks so much for being with us. I appreciate the time
SUSAN RICE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Good to be with you,
MADDOW: There`s been a bunch of reporting over a period of years that the
U.S. had previously assessed that it could be more dangerous to kill Qasem
Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force in Iran, than to allow him to live
even when U.S. forces did potentially have a shot at him. I just wanted to
ask, there`s a lot of discussion about that reporting now that this air
strike has happened and that Soleimani is dead.
What`s your – what can you tell us in a non-classified setting here about
that reporting, whether it`s accurate and is there any reason we should
think that calculation somehow changed before this air strike?
RICE: Well, to my knowledge, Rachel, and certainly while I was national
security advisor, the Obama administration was not presented with an
opportunity by our intelligence community or by the U.S. military to strike
Qasem Soleimani. Had we been presented with such an opportunity, what we
would have done is weighed very carefully and deliberately the risks versus
the potential rewards. We would have assessed all of the ways in which
this could enhance our security and degrade our security.
And I think – judging from what I know and what we`re likely to see, I
think that there`s real reason to believe that in all likelihood the
benefits will be outweighed by the risks. And we also would have taken all
sorts of time and effort to prepare to ensure that our personnel,
diplomatic and military, in the region were maximally protected against the
likelihood of Iranian retaliation.
The reason why it`s reasonable to calculate that the risks could exceed the
rewards is for all the litany of examples you gave and Richard Engel
outlined – the ways in which Iran has the capacity to retaliate in very
significant ways. Again, they can retaliate as you mentioned in Iraq
without any restraint, throughout the Levant region, Syria, Lebanon,
potentially Israel, all throughout the Gulf where your graphic illustrated
we have tens of thousands of American troops as well as diplomats,
commercial facilities, civilian installations.
So – and then, of course, as you suggested at the outset, there`s the
wider risk that beyond the Middle East, in Europe, in Latin America, in
Africa where Iran`s proxy Hezbollah has a major presence, and even in the
United States, there`s the potential that they could attack targets of
significance, hard and soft, military, diplomatic and civilian.
So if in fact the administration can be believed that there was indeed
strong intelligence of an imminent threat against the United States being
carried out by Soleimani and related militia, then the question becomes,
one, were there more than one way to address that threat? Was the only way
to deal with it to kill Soleimani who certainly given his history and track
record deserves his just rewards, but the question is does that serve our
interests? Does that make us more secure?
And I`m dubious about that. And frankly, the fact that we have taken
Soleimani off the field doesn`t mean that the Iranians have lost their
capacity to attack us. In fact, we can be certain that they are motivated
now to retaliate in far greater scale than they may have been planning if
that`s, in fact, the case.
MADDOW: Ambassador Rice, if mind holding with us for just another moment,
I`d like to ask you – have to take a quick break but I`d like to ask you
about the kind of actions the U.S. government could be taking now to try to
mitigate the risks you`re describing to take the sort of protective action
that we might reasonably take in this situation if we can stick with us.
We`ll be right back with Susan Rice, former ambassador to the U.N. and
national security advisor. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Back with us once again is Susan Rice, former U.N. ambassador and
national security advisor.
Ambassador Rice, I`ve spoken with a number of experts and former
administration officials, particularly from the Obama administration since
this airstrike. And I have been surprised that so many of them uniformly
have said we should now consider ourselves to be on a war footing, that we
should basically perceive ourselves to be in a war now with Iran based on
this act by the Trump administration.
I wonder if you – if you share that view, and whether or not you share
that view, whether you think the Trump administration is doing the right
kind of protective and mitigating things they could do to try to keep
RICE: I do think that the risk of direct conflict and sustained conflict
with Iran, a war has gone up immeasurably. And I think it is wise for
Americans to consider themselves likely to be on a war footing. If it can
be averted, fine. But I`m dubious about that.
There are things we can do to protect ourselves but none of them are
sufficient or perfect. We can harden or embassies and our military
facilities through a variety of means. We can draw down military or
diplomatic personnel or increase personnel. We can warn American citizens
not to travel and to leave, but none of those ensure that Iran can`t attack
in an asymmetric way.
And, in fact, we have now assurance that by killing Soleimani, that
whatever plan we allegedly were trying to disrupt can`t still be executed.
Soleimani was certainly the orchestrator of many attacks but he wasn`t a
one ban band. I think the Iranians are going to have to demonstrate for
their own survivability in the region and of the regime they will fight
back and hit back hard.
And when they do, we will face the choice how we respond. Either we
respond in kind and that leads to escalation, or we back down and embolden
Iran to push forward further. Either way the risk of conflict increases.
MADDOW: Susan Rice, former U.N. ambassador and national security advisor
and the author of “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For” -
- Ambassador Rice, thank you so much for making the time to be here. I
know the demands on your time are heavy right now. Thanks a lot.
RICE: Thanks so much, Rachel.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.
MADDOW: All right. That is going to do it for us tonight. We`ll see you
again Monday where I am here to tell you now we are going to be joined live
on set by Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential contender,
Elizabeth Warren. She will be here in studio with me on Monday night.
Monday night right here I will see you then.
Now it`s time, though, for “THE LAST WORD” where Ali Velshi is in for
Good evening, Ali.
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protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced,
distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the
prior written permission of ASC Services II Media, LLC. You may not alter
or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the