The Cook Political Report's Amy Walter discusses why President Biden's popular policies haven't translated to popularity among voters.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Taliban attacks kill journalists in Afghanistan and students in Pakistan. In Iran sanctions are lifted and American prisoners are released. And the U.K. implicates Vladimir Putin in the poisoning death of a former Russian spy. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Edward Luce Chief U.S. columnist and commentator, Financial Times; author of "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent"
- Courtney Kube National security producer, NBC News
- Shane Harris Senior correspondent, The Daily Beast; Future of War fellow, New America; author, "At War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex" and "The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State"
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. North Korea says it has arrested a University of Virginia student after what they call hostile acts. International sanctions are lifted in Iran as the nuclear deal goes into effect and a new British report says Vladimir Putin probably was behind the poisoning death of a former Russian spy.
MS. SUSAN PAGEHere to discuss this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Edward Luce of The Financial Times, Courtney Kube of NBC News, Shane Harris of The Daily Beast. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. EDWARD LUCEGood morning.
MS. COURTNEY KUBEThank you.
MR. SHANE HARRISGood morning.
PAGEWe hope our listeners will give us a call later in this hour to join our conversation, 1-800-433-8850 is our toll-free number. You can always send us an email, email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Shane, this North Korea story broke just a few hours ago. Tell us what we know about what's happening.
HARRISWell, what we know is that this college student, his name is Otto Warmbier, was apparently traveling with a group, an actual tour group in North Korea. I was speaking with a friend of his this morning who said he was with his father. He described Otto as a sort of world traveler. He's been to other places before and was kind of drawn to North Korea by the forbidden sort of exotic nature of it.
HARRISWhat the North Koreans have said is that they detained him on January 2 for, in their words, "bringing down the foundation of North Korea's single-minded unity," which tells you absolutely nothing about why he was detained. Notably, this was four days before they conducted a nuclear bomb test, which they claim was a hydrogen bomb.
HARRISSo we've seen things like this play out before where they take someone, detain someone and sort of use them as a bargaining chip. And so it may be that North Korea wants to have him to try to get out from under new sanctions that were imposed or to try and show the West that they can get tough, but he seems -- pretty much what we know is that he's probably caught up in the middle of some larger political game. But we know very little about what he was doing in North Korea.
PAGEAnd, of course, he's now been held for a couple weeks. It's not like this happened yesterday, the arrest. It's just that we're learning about it. So what is the U.S. saying? Are we hearing anything?
KUBENot much. I mean, they're saying that, you know, for privacy and safety and, you know, of course, the U.S. doesn't have any kind of diplomatic relations with North Korea. They work through a protectorate. But this comes at a time, you know, as Shane mentioned, this happened just several days before North Korea tested what they claim to be a hydrogen bomb. That claim hasn't been verified, but the belief it was some sort of a nuclear test.
KUBESo it came several days before that so the assumption is this guy is going to be used as a pawn in that. And it comes amid this escalating tensions between South Korea and North Korea and by extension, the U.S. You know, after this test, South Korea and North Korea both ramped up their propaganda efforts against one another. That just causes more tensions. And then, the U.S. sort of gets pulled into that as well. Right now, it's a question of whether there's going to be some new UN Security Council resolution or sanctions against North Korea because of this most recent test.
KUBEAnd the assumption is that North Korea is going to use now this presumably innocent college student as leverage not to have sanctions.
PAGEAnd Edward, they have a second American now being held in North Korea as well, a Korean American man taken earlier this month.
LUCEYeah, I mean, there's a pattern here. This is the fourth nuclear test and there's been a pattern in the past of taking, either preemptively or around the time of the tests, foreigners hostage, essentially, by arresting them on trumped up charges. And then, for the most part, getting big figures, including former President Bill Clinton, Bill Richardson, the former UN ambassador -- U.S. ambassador to the UN, to come out on private jets, sports stars even have been out and negotiate the release of these arrested Americans.
LUCESo the only other thing that occurred to me, although this happened before the release of the four Americans from Iran earlier this week, is that there were allegations around that that the $1.7 billion the U.S. paid to Iran for compensation for an arms deal that proceeded the Iran revolution was actually ransom money.
PAGEWhich, of course, the United States says it doesn't pay -- just before we leave this story, I want to say, we certainly are thinking about these two Americans in North Korea and hoping for their safe return soon. Wall Street Journal had a story this morning that says accusations are -- that belief that his money paid to Iran amounted to ransom. What does the U.S. say about that, Courtney?
KUBEI have to admit I didn't see The Wall Street Journal story, but they, of course, deny that. The U.S. maintains that the nuclear deal negotiations and the prisoner swap, prisoner release were conducted in parallel, but completely separate and apart from one another and so this week, one of the big issues has been since these Americans were released from Iran last weekend is what about Robert Levinson. He, you know, was that part -- John Kerry admitted that Robert Levinson's actually -- his name is written into the JCPOA agreement.
PAGENow what does -- JCPOA...
KUBESorry. The nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Iran, that his name is written into it. You know, it's hard to say. I don't know that anyone really knows whether Iran knows where Levinson is or not. It seems as if the U.S. believes that Iran does not know where he is and that's why they wrote it into the agreement that Iran is supposed to continue to look for him. They're supposed to try to make efforts to find him and to get him released back to America.
PAGEBut this $1.7 billion paid to Iran was really to settle an old court case that goes back to the Shah.
HARRISRight, right. I mean, it could have the appearance because of the timing of looking like a ransom payment, but, you know, I think there's a sort of a settling...
PAGEWell, it was simultaneous.
HARRISIt was simultaneous, as was the prisoner release with implementation of the nuclear deal.
LUCEThis has been going on 30 years.
HARRISEven though they're not connected, right?
KUBEWhich were completely unconnected.
HARRISYeah, we're sort of, you know, settling all the accounts at once here, I suppose and clearing the decks.
PAGEWell, does that mean that whatever -- whether it's fair to call it ransom or not, does that mean that we, in fact, are entering a new era in our relations with Iran?
LUCEWell, quite possibly, yes. I mean, the lifting of the sanctions this week, the fact that Iran is coming back into the global oil markets, the fact that it's already signing oil agreements with European oil buyers, all of these, each in and of themselves, has huge implications that will necessarily change our relations with Iran. The spat between -- spat, perhaps is an understatement. The very high level of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran keys straight into America's number one foreign policy issue, which is the civil war in Syria.
LUCEAnd I think that this week, Mohammed Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister's comments in Davos where a lot of the global players are right now, that he wanted to ratchet down tensions with Saudi Arabia and the fact that Saudi Arabia, very strongly, rebutted him and that Secretary of State Kerry is now heading to Saudi Arabia today to try and get a more reasonable line out of the Saudis shows just how central a bet they've placed on getting a more reasonable Iran out of this nuclear deal.
KUBEBut there have been, you know, three sort of high profile incidents recently that call into question the U.S. and Iran relationship and how it's going -- what's going to change about it going forward. And I don't think that, taken separately, any of them indicate anything necessarily, but they may indicate a trend and that is the first one, the ballistic missile test that Iran conducted several weeks ago, the second is the U.S. navy sailors who were taken in detention by Iran when they strayed into Iranian waters, held at gunpoint, they were boarded.
KUBEA humiliating video released of them that the U.S. Navy is furious about, understandably furious about. And then, the third is this incident with the USS Harry S. Truman just after Christmas where Iran was test-firing some rockets 1500 yards off the front of the U.S. aircraft carrier. So the question is, do all these indicate that Iran is going to continue to be a thorn in the side of the international community and the United States or is it something like -- does this indicate that there are better diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran because in the case of the U.S. sailors, John Kerry was able to get on the phone within minutes to Zarif and say, you've got our sailors. Get them out.
KUBEAnd at that point, we think they were being held by the Rev Guard, even though they weren't initially picked up with them and they were released. So we don't really know. We don’t know what the future holds, but you can make the argument that the trend is there are warming relations between the U.S. and Iran and then the bigger question is, what does that mean for the rest of the U.S. allies who are very concerned about that, like Saudi Arabia?
PAGEAnd, of course, this is the international hour of the Friday News Roundup. We talked about the U.S. presidential election in our domestic hour. But the relations with Iran and especially the seizing of those Navy sailors has become an issue in both parties, Shane.
HARRISYeah, absolutely. And I think it happened, of course, on the evening of the State of the Union address. It was seen as quite embarrassing in that respect as well. And I think that particularly critics of the nuclear agreement, the deal with Iran, are pointing to these kind of provocations and saying, see, you've cut a deal with these people and they're just going to continue pushing. They're just going to continue doing these things to embarrass us and to threaten us and that nothing is going to change.
LUCEI think it's worth pointing out that the Iranian elections, parliamentary elections, take place next month and the guardian council vets -- this is a council appointed by the Supreme Leader -- vets the candidates for those elections and more than 99 percent of the reformist candidates, those allied with President Rouhani and the moderates on the moderate side of the Iranian political spectrum have been purged.
LUCEOnly 30 reformists are being allowed to run in this so I think, clearly, the Supreme Leader, back to the nuclear deal, it wouldn't have happened if the Ayatollah had not backed the deal, but he's now appeasing the hardliners by saying, look, the moderates -- Rouhani's people are not going to run away with a victory here domestically.
PAGEWhich means we can't count on Iran to behave in the way we hope to in the future because it's got its own internal politics.
LUCEExactly. And that, of course, was one of the big selling points of the deal is that it would empower, strengthen the forces of moderation within Iran and clearly, this slate of election candidates being rejected will militate against that.
PAGEEdward Luce, he's the chief U.S. columnist and commentator at The Financial Times. He's the author of "Time To Start Thinking: American In The Age Of Dissent." Courtney Kube also joins us. She is the national security producer at NBC News. And we're also joined by Shane Harris, senior correspondent at The Daily Beast. He's a fellow at New America, author of the book, "At War: The Rise Of The Military Internet Complex."
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. It's the international hour of our Friday News Roundup. Shane Harris is here from the Daily Beast, Courtney Kube from NBC News, and Edward Luce from the Financial Times. Let's take a call. We'll talk to Iman, calling us from Columbia, Md. Thanks so much for giving us a call.
IMANHey, thank you for taking my call. I appreciate it. I'm going to have a couple of comments and a question, as quick as I can. The first one is about the prisoner swap between Iran and U.S.A. We kept, for months, hearing and hearing about these people being kept hostage by Iran. But we never heard about the ones that U.S. were holding. And while the ones released by Iran are going to enjoy a 24-hour media coverage, the Iranians released had to sign an agreement they're not taking any money for any interviews, any book deals or so on.
IMANThe other thing that (word?) is a (word?) for the Iranian to ask for is the visa restrictions, discriminatory visa restrictions that went in effect yesterday. Interestingly, this was a reaction to the San Bernardino terrorist attack, which was the perpetrators had happened to visit Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. But this law is targeting Iranians and Sudanese and people who have visited Syria, not those who visited Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, which is putting the Iranian diasapora in a shock after all the openings -- the discriminatory.
PAGEAnd, Iman, let me ask you, are you Iranian yourself?
IMANYes, I am. Yes, I am an Iranian who lived in the United States for 15 years. And my other question is regarding Hillary Clinton's relations with Iran. We know that when she was in the State Department, the Iran deal was not going through. She was actually pursuing a regime change by delisting the MEK group. And we've heard her derogatory comments about Iran and we also know her ties with the, you know, the Gulf money. The Clinton Foundation is really funded by them. And my question is, if Hillary comes -- becomes the president, will she undo what Obama achieved with Iran? Would she sabotage it or is she going to go on with Obama dates. Thank you.
PAGEOkay, Iman. Thanks so much for your call. You know, I didn't realized that -- I had not heard that the Iranian prisoners who were freed in the swap weren't allowed to do interviews. Do any of you know about that?
HARRISThat may be a part of their pardon, because they were offered pardon and clemency in some cases -- there were seven of them. And so it's possible. But I had not heard that. And one reason we didn't hear a lot about them was the Iranians were never clear publicly about who they wanted released. So it was never clear. I mean, I did some reporting in the run-up to this sort of guessing at who these people might be. And it turned out that they were actually on the list, because there's a number of people in prison on sanctions violations -- some on terror charges, but mostly sanctions violations. But I suppose they could put that restriction as part of the deal.
PAGEHmm. I'd be sorry to hear that because I really liked, you know, I think you ought to have freedom of speech, even if you're an Iranian prisoner whose just been...
PAGE...freed in a swap. Edward?
LUCEYeah. I just wanted to answer a couple of other points the caller made. One is, I think he's probably slightly unfairly characterizing Hillary Clinton's position on the Iran deal. She was supportive, has been consistently supportive of it. She did start the negotiations that John Kerry then inherited and Jake Sullivan, who is now her sort of senior advisor of the campaign played a very key role in the Iran negotiations, and some believe a critical role. So I don't think that she's going to scrap this deal if she becomes president.
LUCEAnd just on the other point about the visa -- the modifications to the Visa Waiver Program, about people who visited Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sudan in the last five years. You know, I think this is just a terrorist watch list ranking and that it's a very reasonable question to ask whether Pakistan and Saudi Arabia visits should be included on that list.
PAGEYeah. Courtney, you know, one of the U.S. prisoners released from Iran is Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter. We've talked about his case many times on the News Roundup. I see that he's now boarded a plane in Germany, is headed back home. Such good news.
KUBEAbsolutely. And we all saw Amir Hekmati, the Marine who was released. He got back to Michigan yesterday. And I think he sort of became this darling of the media in the past 48 hours because he kept coming to the cameras and talking when we didn't expect to hear from him. And he was saying things that were -- I mean, I don't mean to be patronizing at all -- but that were just adorable. You know, how he was so happy. He loved his country and he was so -- felt so blessed.
KUBEIman, the caller, brought up one thing that I found interesting and I made the note of is there has been some criticism of this swap because there were, you know, as Shane mentioned, there were seven Iranians, sometimes Iranian-Americans, who were freed, who were granted pardons. They had all been convicted of these sanctions violations. That's one big difference between the Americans that were released and these Iranians, is they were actually convicted of these charges. The Americans were -- are presumably innocent of all their charges. But John Kerry also said that they were all close to being released anyway.
KUBEAnd then there 14 others who had their arrest warrants expunged. But John Kerry also mentioned that they were never going to get them anyway -- the U.S. was never going to bring these guys to justice, so.
PAGEThere was a new U.N. report out this week that says nearly 19,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq since 2014. How did they die? Who's responsible for their deaths, Shane?
HARRISYeah, this is a really shocking report, frankly. You know, they're attributing most of the deaths to ISIS and to the fighting that's going on in Iraq right now. Nineteen thousand civilians between January 2014 and October 2015, largely attributing to that conflict. They go on to note some other really appalling statistics, saying ISIS holds about 3,500 slaves, has subjected women and children to sexual violence. At least 18,802 civilians killed and half of them in Baghdad, another 36,000 injured.
HARRISI mean, these are numbers that are -- this is looking like when we had -- when the Iraq war was officially going that we were involved in. This is devastating to the people of Iraq. This conflict and these numbers just really I think were pretty shocking and landed with quite a punch this week.
PAGEWe have a caller who I think wants to talk about ISIS. It's Chris. He's calling us from Louisville. Chris, hi, you're on the air.
CHRISYes, ma'am. Thank you for taking the call. I hope you all survive the weekend up there.
PAGEWe do too.
CHRISYeah. Going to be a big one. I was calling about the ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaida, Taliban, the Wahhabis. They all want to create -- well, not all of them -- but they're talking about creating this caliphate and they're trying to appeal to the younger generation. And I'm wondering, the only thing they seem to have to offer with the education in the future would be a real, back-century, seventh-, eighth-century approach to civilization. I'm wondering, when the oil runs out, when the oil gets depressed like this, they're not producing, they're not making any money, how would they appeal to the young people for the future? What would those young people do with that kind of education, if it's all about, you know, Wahhabis and the religious schools?
PAGEAll right, Chris. Thanks for your call. Edward.
LUCEWell, I share the caller's sentiment. I mean, I think that, you know, oil isn't going to run out. The prices might stay low. But the ability of ISIS and affiliate groups to make money through links with organized crime, looting of antiquities, kidnapping, ransoms, is probably fairly endless if they can continue to control territories. And if you look at the map of where ISIS has spread or ISIS-affiliated groups have spread, including in Afghanistan -- the caliphates of Khorasan, as they call it -- then, you know, I don't share the caller's certainty that this is going to run out of juice anytime soon.
HARRISI think his question, too, points to the question that the Obama administration and other experts who study this problem are asking, which is how do you reach out to young people who are falling under the spell of ISIS? So we talk about radicalization and foreign fighters and how ISIS is trying to draw people in from the West to come to them. If there's really an opportunity to try and push back against ISIS and kind of cut it off at the root, that's one place where people are looking. And how -- so how do you make it less appealing? How do you get through to these people and say, look, there is no future here. There is only going to be suffering and backwards thinking and making it less appealing.
HARRISThat's part of the long-term strategy for ultimately fighting ISIS. It's not just training the Iraqi military. There is this sort of battle for minds that's going on.
PAGEA battle for minds. And the U.S. has really struggled, Courtney, in figuring out about how to do that.
KUBEI think that their -- the U.S.'s biggest problem right now is communicating how they're doing it. You can make an argument that there have been some tactical gains and that there are some of these -- I know there's -- there are a lot of people who are saying that they have no overall strategy -- but they have some strategies within the larger fight. And one of them, the caller, Chris, sort of just illustrated and, that is, to take out ISIS's oil heads, to destroy their money.
KUBEThere was this video that came out in the past couple of days of a U.S. airstrike that hit a bank or cash distribution point of ISIS. And you could literally see the money blowing up and floating through the air. And it was, you know, millions of dollars. There have been nine strikes like that recently. They're taking out tens of millions of dollars. And just as, you know, anecdotal evidence that it's having an impact, there was a leaked ISIS memo -- which I never thought I would say those words, a leaked ISIS memo -- saying that ISIS fighters, all their salaries will be cut in half. So that actually will -- that could have an impact.
KUBEThere, you know, I think there's this notion that all these 30,000 or whatever fighters -- ISIS fighters that exist in that region are all these hardened ideologues. But the reality is some of them are individuals who are trying to, you know, support their families. And they aren't necessarily ideologically wedded to it. But ISIS generally pays more than the Iraqi government. So they will work for ISIS. So this could have an impact on that.
PAGEThis report that came out -- the U.N. report that talked about all these casualties attributed mostly to ISIS in Iraq -- it said this might even be a case of genocide.
LUCEI think that would be a very strong case to make. It is worth mentioning, though, that the kind of indiscriminate bombing that the Iraqi forces practiced to retake Ramadi recently and Sinjar earlier caused a lot of civilian casualties too. Whole sort of sections of the town were erased. And the big battle now, in 2016 and possibly further out into 2017, is to retake Mosul, which is a far larger population center.
PAGEAnd what are the prospects for that?
LUCEWell, they keep pushing back the timetable for when that assault is going to happen. You know, the key problem here is training Iraqi -- enough Iraqi forces. They're going to behave professionally, are not going to indulge in indiscriminate retaliation killings and they're not going to desert their posts at the first whiff of grapeshot. And so we now hear talk of 2017, it being pushed back even to 2017.
PAGEWe had three Americans abducted in Baghdad this week. Who were they, Shane.
HARRISIt's an interesting case. These were contractors -- three American contractors, reportedly two men and a woman who worked at the Baghdad International Airport. We did some reporting on this in the Daily Beast, talking to someone who knew them, saying they had left the sort of fortified area where they had been living. They had a false sense of security about what they would find on the outside. And they were kidnapped from an apartment. And what's been reported in The Washington Post is that they may have been going to see their Iraqi translator at this apartment. But many of the locals who live there say the apartment they were taken from is actually a well-known brothel and sort of a den of inequity, if you like.
HARRISSo it would not be surprising, perhaps, that Shiite militias or others might be kind of coming through there and doing the morality police thing. And perhaps they found these individuals. Their prospects for their safe return are probably better if they are with the Shiite militia than if they were captured by ISIS. Which of course then raises the entire specter of would we start seeing these awful hostage videos all over again?
KUBEI think the -- most of the people I've spoken to about -- and, for starters, the U.S. government is -- has really, really clammed up about this. They do not want to talk about these individuals. They don't want to do anything that could potentially jeopardize them. But most of the people I've spoken with believe that they have been -- they were picked up potentially even by just some local criminal gang and that are likely in the hands of one of the Shia militias. I mean, this is south Baghdad. It's Shia militia territory. You know, the notion that they would go into Dora and think that they would just be able to go into a brothel or see their interpreter or whatever is ludicrous, frankly.
KUBESo the concern is that they may have been picked up by Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, which is the league of the righteous. It's an Iranian-backed Shia militia. But, you know, I've seen all these theories out there that, well, clearly, this is an attempt to be able to create leverage against the U.S. by holding them and they targeted them. Most likely what happened was, these individuals made a bad decision. They went to this neighborhood they should not have been in. And that they were a target of opportunity. And I think the hope by the U.S. officials I've spoken with is that there will be some sort of a negotiation and they'll be able to get them back.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listing to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Kate calling us from here in Washington, D.C. Kate, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
KATEWell, thanks so much for having me and thank you for this very valuable, informative discussion and taking my call. I just wanted to clarify that the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear agreement, doesn't in fact include any mention of Robert Levinson. What Kerry was talking about is that there is a written agreement that Iran would, you know, agree to assist in the whereabouts and uncovering the whereabouts of Robert Levinson. But that's not part of the nuclear deal.
KATEAnd the administration has been very conscientious, very deliberate about separating these tracks, these, you know, two different tracks. One, on the nuclear issue resulting in the JCPOA, which is public to the world. Everyone can see it online. You can control F for Robert Levinson. There's no mention of that. And then, separately, on the release of prisoners.
PAGENow, Kate, let me ask you, is this something you've been -- an issue you've been involved with? It sounds like you're pretty knowledgeable about it.
KATEYes. I lead the lobbying on Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, (word?) to the lobby in the public interest. So this has been a real priority for us in supporting the nuclear agreement.
PAGEI see. Well, thank you so much for giving us a call. I would just like to say we have such an amazing listening audience. We are constantly informed by them. Courtney, I think this was a point you made.
KUBEIt was, yeah. And Kate is actually right. That was a distinction that I should have made clear. John Kerry spoke about this, this week, when he was specifically making the point that the JCPOA and the negotiations for the prisoner swap were on separate tracks, even though everyone knows they were done in conjunction with one another or parallel to one another. But Kate is correct. That is a very specific distinction.
PAGELet's slip in another caller. Tony, calling us from New York. Tony, where are you calling us from?
TONYI'm calling you from Western New York. You know, I don't recall the military ever apologizing for putting on prisoners with hoods on their heads and masks over their mouths. And I'm not condoning the Iranian demonstration or media, you know, presentation of our soldiers kneeling down, if prisoners. But I think that our condemnation of them would be much stronger if it was coupled with some contriteness in how we've presented prisoners in the past.
PAGETony, thanks for your call. Courtney.
KUBESo I -- Tony, I understand your point. But I think you have to look at what -- the U.S. Navy operates in that area quite often. And I -- there have been -- the sailors did make an -- they acknowledged that they drifted into Iranian territory waters for whatever reason, that's still under investigation. It seems like it was probably a giant mistake on the part of the sailors.
KUBEBut when the U.S. Navy encounters Iran ships, there have been instances you can -- that we can point to where they've encountered ships where they have not behaved in the same manner in which the Iranian Coast Guard and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, in this case, where they did not -- they do not board the Iranian ships, they do not hold them at gunpoint, they do not detain them. Where they will, if there's some sort of a mechanical problem, they will help them get their boat, their craft back underway.
KUBESo the U.S. Navy is furious about this. They want to find out how it is that -- why it is that Iran felt that they could board the U.S. ships, why they felt that they could detain their American citizens. And I think we'll -- we're going to find out more about exactly what happened in the coming weeks.
PAGECourtney Kube, national security producer at NBC News. With us this hour also, Shane Harris. He's the author of "At War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex." And Edward Luce, he's the author of "Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline." We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about incidents of terrorism in various places around the world. And we're going to take your calls. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Give us a call. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We have an email question from Alex. Alex is in the eighth grade, and he asked, I was wondering which countries and rebel groups are participating in the Syrian peace talks, and what do each hope to gain from the talks beyond the end of the civil war? Let's not -- let's assume Alex is not writing a term paper on this issue and looking for our help. Courtney, what would you tell him?
KUBEAlex, that's the million-dollar question. Everyone's waiting to see which groups will be invited to the talks, and that's the reason that they are delayed. They were supposed to occur next week. The U.N. was supposed to send out the invitations, and they haven't gone out yet, and that's mainly because the various sides cannot agree on who should be included. They had set a list several weeks ago at the last meeting, and now no one can agree who should be at the table.
HARRISYeah, and I think that's -- it's an open-ended question, as you say. And I mean, and the other big question is how long will Assad be allowed to stay in power, and what will be his ultimately, you know, disposition. That's sort of the other big thing looming over this. But obviously, clearly the Russians have a huge amount of sway at the table that we couldn't have imaged a couple of years ago that they would have had for deciding the future of Syria.
LUCEYeah, Vladimir Putin, as we've just discovered in the last 24 hours, did ask Assad to step down last fall, last autumn, and got nowhere. And it was clear that the alternatives that were potential to replace Assad had been removed by Assad in the last few months. He had anticipated this Russian move. So, you know, what the parties want out of the future of Syria, even in Russia's case it's not clear.
PAGEAlex, thanks so much for your email. We're glad you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. We have an email from Tony. He's writing us from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He says, are any other countries settling accounts with Iran? I think that was a phrase you used, Shane.
HARRISYeah, I mean, who else is going to -- you know, that's more of, like, maybe opening accounts with Iran is actually what's going to be happening now because as these sanctions are lifted, the opportunity for new business to come in, for banks to potentially start working there, I mean, you can't -- you don't have credit cards in Iran. Cash is primarily how things are done there.
HARRISAnd of course the unfreezing of the assets from various banks in Japan, the UAE and elsewhere around the world. So really I think now it's sort of a -- this is what was expected was, you know, not necessarily the gold rush, but, you know, things are going to be changing now. People are going to want back into that market.
PAGEDoug is calling us from Naperville, Illinois. Doug, hi, you're on the air.
DOUGThank you, good morning, thank you for taking my call. I'd be grateful for the panel's thoughts to this haunting question. Many of us think about this. It's been discussed many times. And the main issues are if we had reached, the United States had reached, agreement with Malaki, and the Shiite and Sunnis had been included, and the United States had kept troops in Iraq, would ISIS, the Islamic State, would all of this, if not been prevented, would it have been -- lessened the chances of it happening? I'd be grateful for the panel's thoughts on that anguished and haunting question.
PAGEAll right, Doug, thanks so much for your call. Courtney, what would you say?
KUBEI think that that is something that's going to be debated for years, and the reality is if the U.S. had maintained some sort of a troops presence in Iraq, they would've had influence over Malaki, and that's something that they relinquished when they left in December of 2011. They would've been able to encourage him not to set up such a partisan structure, and it would've been the potential for there to be less sectarian tension that there was in the country that wouldn't have led to not only necessarily such a rise, such a meteoric rise of ISIS but their ability to sweep through large swaths of the country.
KUBEI could've potentially kept the Iraqi military also in a better position, especially the military in the west and in Anbar, which is largely more Sunni, but we just don't know. I think the reality is it's hard to make the argument that keeping U.S. troops there would not have had an impact that would've lessened ISIS' strength and ability that they have right now.
PAGEDo you agree with that, Edward?
LUCEYeah, I do. I think it's a very counterfactual question. Clearly December 2011 was the point at which Shiite, sectarian, Iran-backed forces, you know, took full control of Iraq, and any restraining sort of U.S. presence was removed. And the conditions for the rise, the rapid spread of ISIS, the undoing of the Sunni awakening in Anbar and elsewhere and the pushing back of Sunni populations into the arms of extremists like ISIS. That was accelerated in 2012 onwards.
LUCEAnd so although it's very counterfactual, I think it's a very good question worth posing.
PAGEBut of course we did hear the defense secretary, Ash Carter, this week mention that the U.S. may be spending more troops back to Iraq. Shane, what kind of numbers are we talking about?
HARRISThere could be hundreds, you know, to complement what are already there. And importantly, they say these would be in the role of training Iraqi military forces. So you're not talking about people engaging directly in combat, but here we are again with this sort of felling of mission creep. It's, like, last time it was just, you know, a set number of trainers. Now we're sending more trainers.
HARRISThe key thing here, too, is that, and Ed was talking about this earlier, it's really about gearing up for the assault on Mosul, which keeps getting pushed back. And the retaking of Ramadi was sort of a hopeful indication that things might be going in the right direction, but interestingly, the forces that took that, the Iraqi forces, were mainly part of a highly trained counterterrorism unit, not really the sort of regular Iraqi army. So we can't even read too much into that success to say, well, the training mission must be going very well if they took Ramadi because it was this sort of small, highly specialized group that isn't going to scale up in those numbers to take Mosul, which is a much bigger place.
PAGELet's go back to the phones. We'll talk to John, calling us from Houston. Hi John.
JOHNHello, how are you? Thank you for taking my call. I listen to this show regularly, as opposed to Fox News, because I have some respect for the reporting that's done on the show, as opposed to Fox News. I'm a physician calling from Houston, Texas. One of the -- your guests made a comment with great certainty that all seven of the people that were released by us here on this side were convicted of their crimes, as opposed to the Americans who were released in Tehran.
JOHNWell, I can tell you I know two of the folks here in Houston who were arrested that were never tried. Their trial had not occurred yet. And so what I cannot understand from our laws here, you are not convicted unless you are tried and convicted by a jury of some sort. So either the reporter does not know the difference between conviction and accusation or was making a misrepresentation. Either way, it's disappointing.
PAGEJohn, hold on for just a moment. Of course, you know, we're all human, so I think all of us at times don't understand something fully or are misrepresented for entirely innocent reasons. But I'm so interested to hear from you. Have you talked to these friends of yours who have gotten released?
JOHNI have not talked to them. It's a fairly small community here in Houston. We hear the news, and we're -- you know, we hear most of these things secondhand. And I know that these guys were not tried. Now if they had been tried, they would mostly likely be or maybe be convicted, but when you're reporting it as fact, there has to be some factual information behind it.
JOHNThe other comment I have to make, which was a bit disappointing, is if you have a conversation or a discussion on your show, which is race-related, African-Americans for example or Hispanics, and someone calls in and makes a comment, I have never heard Diane Rehm ask that person where they were from. Were they black, were they Hispanic, or were they white? What difference does that make? And by doing so, are you diminishing one's opinion?
PAGEJohn, I will tell you in the first hour of the news roundup, I asked a caller if he was African-American because he was talking about attitudes in the African-American community. Earlier in this hour, I asked someone if he was Iranian or Iranian-American because he was talking about the issue with a great deal of confidence, and I think actually affects kind of your -- I think actually I would disagree with you, respectfully, that I think that is a fair and appropriate thing to ask.
PAGEBut also in terms of being accurate, we care so much here about being accurate on all the details, even when we deal with six or seven topics, six or seven complicated topics during the international news roundup, and I know that's the case in this one, as well. So let me turn to our panel about the specifics of these Iranians who were released.
HARRISSure, I think it's actually three individuals in Houston that were -- they were tried -- they were not tried not. They had been indicted on sanctions violations, and they were pending trial. And there were seven people altogether who were affected by this deal. And in this case, you know, they were -- I think the caller is correct. The charges against them were sanctions violations. It was a pretty cut-and-dry case in terms of what the prosecution had.
HARRISInterestingly, though, part of their defense was I think going to be that these comp sanctions regulations were so complicated, these were businessmen who were accused of exporting communications, or I'm sorry, electrical equipment to Iran, that they didn't believe they were actually violating sanctions. They said that they had tried to make efforts to contact lawyers to do this the right way, and they got caught up in this.
HARRISBut theirs was a case that, from my own research kind of pretty early on, seemed like if you were going to release anyone from American custody, this was an easy call. The things that they are accused of doing probably are not illegal anymore, I'm guessing, too.
PAGESo John, we appreciate your call. We are glad you're a listener to the Diane Rehm Show. We hope you continue to be -- to listen to the show because we think it's great, and we try -- and I would say one thing I said after the woman who called, who was a lobbyist for the Quakers on the release of prisoners, you know, the listeners to the Diane Rehm Show become part of the conversation in such important ways because they have such expertise themselves.
PAGELet's talk a little about the latest on the Taliban attack at that university in Pakistan. At least 21 people died. Edward, do we know anything more about the motives behind the attackers?
LUCEWell, this has been claimed -- responsibility has been claimed by a splinter part of the Pakistan Taliban led by a man called Omar Mansoor, who is based in Afghanistan, out of Afghanistan, and who is responsible for the horrific attack a year ago that killed 130 schoolchildren in Peshawar, in a Pakistan military school. So he's clearly claimed responsibility for the attack. What is interesting about this, as well as distressing, is that the Pakistan Taliban are clearly splitting because the official, supposedly official, spokesman for the Pakistan Taliban disowned this attack. There's clearly jockeying for influence. There's been major Pakistan military crackdown in the last year finally, after 10, 15 years of us begging them to do this. In the last year, finally the Pakistan military moved into Waziristan and other tribal territories and taken out the strongholds of the Pakistan Taliban.
LUCEAnd this has splintered the group, and we've not got into the really funny, funny-curious, not funny-funny, situation of whereby the Pakistan Taliban, operating from Afghanistan, Pakistan's main complaint to Kabul, when for the last 10, 15 years, Kabul's main complaint to Islamabad has been the Afghan Taliban operating from Pakistan. So we've had a sort of reverse there of the problems, maybe, finally, a beginning of the meeting of minds between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
LUCEOn both sides of their border the Taliban are a problem, and they've got a threat here in common. And that might sound like wishful thinking, but without that meeting of minds, you're not going to get any kind of resolution to terrorism in that region.
PAGECourtney, we also had a terrorist attack this week in Kabul, Afghanistan, on a busload of journalists. Tell us what happened there.
KUBEYeah, there was Tolo TV, which I think is the largest media outlet in Afghanistan, if not the largest, one of the largest. A bunch of employees were in a bus, and a suicide bomber struck it and hit it. The Taliban took responsibility for it, and they had actually been making claims that they were going to attack Tolo and other media outlets, claiming that they are now military targets because they say that they are reporting falsehoods about the Taliban and hurting the Taliban's image and whatnot. And so they claim it to be a legitimate target.
KUBEBut it struck -- as you mentioned, there were at least seven people killed, there were several dozen who were injured, and it was right in the heart of Kabul.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. We had Shane, also, the Pentagon announcing that U.S. forces can now directly target ISIS in Afghanistan. Is this a big change?
HARRISIt is an interesting change. There's a great story in the Wall Street Journal, got a nice scoop there, looking at -- you know, so now you've got the ability for U.S. forces to go after ISIS in Afghanistan, and it sort of points to two things, one the potential threat of ISIS in Afghanistan and the extent to which the administration sees that as a growing threat and not just in Iraq and Syria, but also this kind of, like, widening aperture of the lens of what our forces are authorized to do.
HARRISAnd of course President Obama has been calling on Congress, you know, give me an authorization to use military force against ISIS. At the same time, we should note, by the way, that he says that the authorization that Congress passed after the 9/11 attacks perfectly covers ISIS, too. So there's some politics in that. But I do think this was notable, I mean, if for no other reason than it reflects on the part of the military and the Pentagon this idea that ISIS is now becoming a potential threat in Afghanistan, and they want to get to it before it metastasizes.
KUBEIt's interesting, so the military calls ISIS in Afghanistan an emergent threat, which they characterize as something that can carry out one attack at a time but not numerous attacks, and I've been hearing for weeks that ISIS and the Taliban, they're trying to both inhabit Nangarhar Province in the east and Kunar, which of course the military is concerned because that means Jalalabad. Jalalabad base, you know, famous for where the SEALs took off to go kill bin Laden, but it's a location that the military is probably going to want to maintain for some time. It will be one of the forever bases in Afghanistan if the U.S. military has their way.
KUBESo it's interesting, one thing that the U.S. military officials I spoke to about this this week said is they were already targeting ISIS in Afghanistan as it was. There's such broad authority there under the self-protection rule of engagement that if they see someone who is ISIS or Taliban or whomever, and they're building a bomb, or they're creating a rocket or whatever, they can target them under the self-protection rule of engagement.
KUBESo this is interesting in that it shows that they're concerned about ISIS in Afghanistan, but practically on the ground, it's probably not going to have a huge practical impact.
PAGEEdward Luce, out of -- there was a report this week from Britain that could've been out of a James Bond novel, involving what happened to that former Russian spy who had -- what do you call it?
PAGEPolonium-laced tea as part of his assassination. What did the British government conclude about that?
LUCEWell, this was a former Russian KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, who had defected to Britain and in fact was on the payroll of MI-5, the British spy agency. And this report was conducted by Judge Robert Owen, many years in the making, into the most bizarre death, this -- using this isotope, polonium-210. These two former KGB agents met him in a hotel, in the Millennium Hotel, just off Grosvenor Square, a few hundred meters from where the American embassy is.
LUCEHe -- they ordered him green tea, insisted he drink the green tea. He drank this green tea, and then it turned out this green tea included this almost invisible and utterly lethal isotope, polonium-210, which took 10, 12 days to kill him, during which time he was interviewed extensively by Scotland Yard, and this report that came out this week essentially concluded that the murder of Litvinenko was ordered by Vladimir Putin, the president.
PAGESo the president of Russia ordered this assassination, they say most probably. Any consequences from that, Shane?
HARRISNot that -- I don't think we're going to see any at all, no. There's even been a mysterious death in Washington recently of a man who was linked to Vladimir Putin. So it's not the first time this happened. Dissidents have been attacked and poisoned, and he just seems to operate with impunity. I mean, I think it's good for the record that this has come out from a reputable source in the U.K., and everyone suspected it, but I can't imagine that we're going to be sanctioning Russia over this or doing anything more.
PAGEShane Harris from The Daily Beast. We've also been joined this hour by Courtney Kube of NBC News and Edward Luce from the Financial Times. Thank you all for being with us this hour.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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