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6 Iraq Militia members killed. TRANSCRIPT: 1/3/20, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Susan Rice


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 into one. 

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. 


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 it all. 


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 to proceed. 

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 terrorism. 

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 outlandish plot. 

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. presidential campaign. 

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 world. 

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 powerful relationship. 

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 violence?

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 issue. 

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. embassy. 

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 Obama administration. 

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 For."

Ambassador Rice, thanks so much for being with us.  I appreciate the time tonight. 

SUSAN RICE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.:  Good to be with you, Rachel. 

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 Americans safe? 

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 Lawrence tonight. 

Good evening, Ali.

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