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The Waiting Is Over. Iran Retaliates For Killing Of Top General


Well, Iran's retaliation for the killing of a top commander came early on Wednesday morning. More than a dozen ballistic missiles targeted two military bases in Iraq that housed U.S. and coalition forces. The Pentagon has not released any reports on casualties or damages at this point. Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called these strikes an act of, quote, "self-defense." This attack comes less than a week after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. The Islamic Republic had vowed to avenge Soleimani's death.

Now, our colleague Mary Louise Kelly who hosts NPR's All Things Considered has been reporting in Tehran, and she joins us this morning. Hi, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what does all of this feel like from Tehran? How are people reacting to these Iranian missile strikes on U.S. forces?

KELLY: So this is all over the news here, as you would imagine. I've been flipping through Iranian TV this morning and they have all got graphics up and, you know, maps showing where these bases are in Iraq. People here are trying to process what exactly happened overnight, what exactly it means. I went downstairs for breakfast at our hotel here in central Tehran and the waiter who was fixing me an omelet and coffee said, did you see what happened overnight? And I have to confess, it took me a second to think, what exactly is he referring to? Is he talking about missile strikes?

GREENE: Which thing that happened overnight?

KELLY: Which thing? But we've also in the last 24 hours had this deadly stampede, this awful thing that killed dozens of people in the hometown of Soleimani, as his body was being carried through the streets for burial. We had this plane crash this morning, a Ukrainian jetliner that went down just moments after takeoff at Tehran's airport. So it has been quite the extraordinary last 24 hours of news here.

I will say on the missile strikes, specifically, there is a sense of, OK, this has happened; Iran has taken a step to retaliate for the killing of Qassem Soleimani. Now Iranians are watching to see what the reaction from the United States will be, what the White House will say and what the United States might do next in response.

GREENE: So is that definitely where we are? I mean, Iran has done its retaliatory move and everyone's waiting for the United States now? Or is it less clear that this is the retaliation that Iran had planned? Could there be more?

KELLY: Right. Well, that is the question. Is this it or might there be more coming from Iran? State news media in the last several hours has characterized the missile attacks as the start of promised revenge. The official ISNA media outlet is carrying a statement from Iran's Revolutionary Guards hard-liners, which reads - and I'll quote - "We are warning the U.S. that if they take any further action, they will receive a harsher response."

We also, for the first time since Soleimani's killing, heard the big, public speech today from the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He gave a speech in the holy city of Qom in Iran. He called the missile attacks carried out by Iran a slap in the face of the Americans. Let me let you hear a little bit of this, David.


ALI KHAMENEI: (Through interpreter) When it comes to confrontation, military actions of this kind are not enough. What is important is the presence - that the corrupt presence of the United States in this region should come to an end.


KELLY: All right, you can hear the cheering there in response to those remarks, David.

GREENE: People like what he was saying.

KELLY: Exactly. Khamenei's suggesting this is one act, these missiles, one act of Iran's response but not the fulfillment of Iran's goal, which as you heard there - is he wants the U.S. to get out of the Middle East entirely.

GREENE: Well, and - I mean, that's the supreme leader. You actually had a chance to talk to Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif yesterday. What did you take from that conversation in terms of what Iran may do to fulfill that goal?

KELLY: Right. Because this is always a question in Iran. There are many parts of the government. And what you hear from the supreme leader and what you hear from the elected leaders and what you hear from other factions of the government, the Parliament, etc. - you're always trying to piece together who is saying what and how does it all fit together.

When I interviewed Javad Zarif yesterday, we sat down, we had 10 minutes together. He would not tell me what was coming. He did not telegraph these missiles attack in Iraq, would give me no specifics. Since then - and this is worth mentioning - he has tweeted, we do not seek escalation or war; we will defend ourselves against any aggression. So a hint there from Iran's Foreign Ministry, at least, that maybe they are looking for a way to de-escalate.

GREENE: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, who hosts All Things Considered and has been on a reporting trip in Tehran, for us this morning. Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.