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Former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon on the significance of the retaliatory strikes


We're joined now by Jeffrey Feltman. He's a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon who later served as the chief foreign policy advisor to two U.N. secretaries-general. Ambassador, thanks so much for being with us.

JEFFREY FELTMAN: Yeah. Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: What's your reaction to these strikes, sir?

FELTMAN: I think they were - these - this reaction was absolutely essential. These strikes were absolutely essential. I mean, the United States has been working to try to deter these sorts of attacks. Last Sunday we saw the largest military casualty rates in the Middle East in the last 10 years. And the Biden administration needed to go beyond simply trying to deter these attacks, to trying to degrade and disrupt the ability of the Iranian proxies to carry out such attacks. I mean, Tom Bowman was just talking about the risks of escalation, the risks of widening of the war. You mentioned widening of the war. If you look at what's happened since October 7, Scott, where the war has widened - Hezbollah firing into Israel, Iranian-allied militias in Syria and Iraq increasing their attacks on U.S. troop presence, the Houthis attacking shipments - all of the escalation, all of the widening until yesterday was taking place because of Iranian proxies, Iranian clients, Iranian partners. And the U.S. pinpoint strikes - the precision strategic defenses, it was called, or the whack-a-mole, as the Pentagon has described it - was not deterring. I think the United States had no choice but to react to the death of three Army reservists with a greater number of attacks to try to disrupt and degrade Iranian proxies' and partners' ability to attack U.S. interests in the region.

SIMON: And what's the significance, then, you read into the fact that in - targets in Iran were not - in Iran itself were not included?

FELTMAN: You know, I've been in these policy meetings back when I served in the government, and I'm sure that there were lots of calculations to take - in trying to determine what were the appropriate targets to try to increase the tempo, degrade and disrupt the ability of Iranian proxies to attack. And you have to think about the fact that you don't want to put the hostages in Gaza at risk. You don't want to try to tip Iran into finally going nuclear, going all the way in terms of nuclear enrichment. And you don't want a war with Iran. Now, as John Kirby has said, this is not the end. This was a tiered approach. So we'll see more targets being hit. But it seems to me that the Biden administration has made a decision not to hit targets in Iran, just as the Trump administration made a decision not to target facilities in Iran in order to stop the escalation without provoking a regional war.

SIMON: Ambassador Feltman, do you have any concerns about the fact you have so many nations that are involved in the Middle East at this point who say, look, we don't want a wider conflict, we don't want a wider war, and yet people keep lighting matches in a highly combustible area?

FELTMAN: Of course, there's real risk that any of this escalation could lead to regional war. I think we all have that concern. I think the Iranians would have watched quite carefully what happened yesterday, that they would have seen the type of military power that the United States can deploy from Texas, 6,000 miles away - hit 85 targets in 30 minutes from a deployment from Texas. So I think that the signal that the Biden administration sent to the Iran yesterday was watch out. You know, beware. I mean, the Iranians so far have been able to claim deniability. They've been able to say, we know. We don't really control these proxies. We don't really control the partners. We don't control Houthis, Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq. And I think - but they have facilitated, they have supplied, they have trained, they have financed these groups. And I think the Biden administration sent a very clear signal yesterday, which apparently is just the first in this tier, that the Iranians need to think about the fact that when their proxies are escalating and widening the war in the Middle East, that Iran, in one way or the other, is going to have to pay a price.

SIMON: Would ending the war between Israel and Hamas lower the temperature in the region?

FELTMAN: Oh, incredibly. And I think - you know, when I look at the Biden administration's goals - you know, get the hostages released, support Israel's security, get humanitarian assistance, lifesaving humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians in sufficient quantities, prevent escalation, prevent a regional war - all of these things become far easier if you can come up with a cease-fire and hostage release for Gaza. And you see that Secretary Blinken is going to do a five-stop tour starting tomorrow in the Middle East. In this efforts, you've seen Amos Hochstein trying to work in Lebanon and Israel to lower the tensions there. You've seen Bill Burns in Paris with the negotiations on hostage release and cease-fire. Everything becomes easier if you're able to come up with a cease-fire and hostage release in Gaza because it removes the pretext for the Houthis, for Hezbollah, for the Iranian Shia militias, etc. It creates space for diplomacy to work on longer-term solutions.

SIMON: And how much latitude does President Biden have in trying to persuade Israel to do that?

FELTMAN: I think that President Biden has achieved great credibility with the Israeli public by showing the type of solidarity that he did in the aftermath of the October 7 atrocities. But there's - without question, there's differences between the administration and Netanyahu's government on the longer-term approach. So I think on the short term, we agree - hostage release, cease-fire, you know, reduce the chance for widening the war. But longer term, there's going to be some tough conversations, tough conversations.

SIMON: Of course, there - and there could be elections in Israel to change the government, couldn't there?

FELTMAN: Absolutely.

SIMON: Jeffrey Feltman, who is a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, who's now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Ambassador, thank you so much for being with us.

FELTMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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