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Republican Sen. Jim Risch Reacts To U.S. Airstrike That Killed Iranian Gen. Soleimani


Late last night, as a car picked him up at the Baghdad airport, Qassem Soleimani was killed by an American drone strike. The Iranian general, U.S. officials say, is responsible for hundreds of American deaths in Iraq and leading Iran's proxy wars in the Middle East. Lawmakers of both parties condemned the man. Here's Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York.


CHUCK SCHUMER: No one should shed a tear over his death.

CHANG: But there is less agreement about the strike itself. We're going to hear reaction from lawmakers in both parties. Elsewhere in the program, we talked to a Democrat. But now we turn to Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho. He's the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


JIM RISCH: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So what was your first reaction when you heard the news?

RISCH: Well, look. I'm also not only on the Foreign Relations Committee. I'm No. 2 on the intelligence committee. And this man's career is notorious amongst people who follow these things. He was arguably worse than Osama bin Laden, particularly as far as the number of people that he is responsible for having killed. He is the man that's responsible for the IED program that killed and maimed so many of our servicemen and women that served in Iraq. He has just been a real cancer on the Earth for many, many years. So I don't agree with Chuck Schumer a lot of the time. But when he says we shouldn't shed a tear over this, I'm all in. This was a bad man, and...

CHANG: That said, President Trump says that this strike was in response not to what he has already done but to what he believes this commander would have done, that this strike...

RISCH: Right.

CHANG: ...Disrupted an imminent attack that would have put American lives at risk. Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said this morning that he still had not been briefed on the intelligence behind the strike. Have you been briefed?

RISCH: I have, and I can tell you that the intelligence on this matter was very clear. It was concise. This man was involved in planning additional attacks. He was involved in arranging for additional attacks on American people.

CHANG: Additional imminent attacks?

RISCH: Additional imminent attacks that could have resulted in very substantial loss in Americans' lives. Can you imagine if we were doing this interview after the fact the president had not acted after getting this information and then Americans lost their lives? It would be stunning, and the Democrats would be singing a different tune, maybe.

CHANG: Well, that said, many are characterizing this strike as an escalation in tensions between Iran and the U.S. Do you see this as an escalation? And if so, does that concern you that tensions are ratcheting up?

RISCH: Nothing could be further from the truth. The escalation has been on the part of the Iranians. I'm not going to lay out everything here, but you recall they shot down an American drone. They carried out an attack on the Saudi petroleum facility where a hundred of our people were working. Most importantly, they have attacked on a dozen different times over the last 60 days our troops - actually, in Iraq, they hadn't killed any until just very recently. They killed an American and injured four of our troops.

CHANG: But what gives you the confidence that this attack will deter further Iranian aggression rather than provoke additional aggression?

RISCH: Well, for those of us who work in this business, I can tell you that in the Middle East, weakness is not appreciated. The only thing that's appreciated is strength. When the president used reasonable forbearance both in the drone attack and then again when the Iranians hit the oil facility, both myself and many, many other people warned the Iranians that they should not mistake reasonable forbearance for weakness, and they apparently did. They're notorious for making bad judgments. They're notorious for miscalculating, and that's what's happened. They've been ratcheting up these attacks on our people there, and it was time to stop it.

CHANG: What if there are further miscalculations? As you phrase it, they're notorious for miscalculations. Your Democratic colleague Senator Chris Murphy told NPR this morning that he expects an asymmetrical response from Iran, that vulnerable, possibly civilian American targets throughout the Middle East will be at risk now. Do you believe that that is the case?

RISCH: Well, the Iranians have already proven they're going to do that. They just killed an American within recent days and injured four American servicemen in Iraq by lobbing these rockets into...

CHANG: But does this strike on Soleimani put those Americans at greater risk?

RISCH: Just the opposite, I believe. I'm hoping that what Iran will do is see this as a natural response to what they have been doing and also assess this that - look. We've made a mistake. The Americans are not weak. They are going to respond. And let - this president hates doing this. I've been in the room. I was in the room when he made the decision on the drone thing. He does not like using kinetic attacks, and he doesn't want to. But when you get put in a position where we've been put in and were they killed an American recently and injured American troops and are - have been actually planning to do more of the same, the president had no choice.

CHANG: Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

RISCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN MAYER SONG, "PAPER DOLL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.