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NSC spokesman John Kirby on the Biden administration and Israel's response to Iran


Israeli's defense minister says it's not over yet, referring to Iran's overnight attack on his country. Tehran and its allied militants in the region aimed hundreds of drones and missiles, most of which were neutralized by Israel and its partners. President Biden called the attack unprecedented. On the phone with us now is the spokesman for the National Security Council, retired Adm. John Kirby. Good morning, Adm. Kirby.

JOHN KIRBY: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So what about this attack made it unprecedented?

KIRBY: The size and the scale - I mean, you're talking several hundred drones and missiles launched from Iran proper, Iranian soil, directly at Israel's soil. Those drones and missiles were added to by Iranian proxy groups in places like Iraq and Syria and even Yemen. So just the size and the scale of it and the mix - it was drones. It was cruise missiles. And it was ballistic missiles. That truly was unprecedented.

RASCOE: And what steps is the White House taking to keep this from escalating?

KIRBY: Everything the president has done since October 7 has been designed to keep this from escalating, to keep a wider regional war from happening. And that is part and parcel of what we did to try to get Israel ready for this attack. We added destroyers. The president ordered destroyers extra into the region. He deployed an additional squadron of fighter aircraft, all of which were critical last night in helping knock down some of these weapons from the sky. And it's really about sending a strong message to anyone in the region that the United States takes our interests very, very seriously. We'll do what we have to do not only to protect ourselves, but our allies.

RASCOE: A Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is also here with us. Tom, you have some questions.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, John. I understand the president told Netanyahu to be cautious and the U.S. won't support an Israeli strike on Iran. Can you say more?

KIRBY: It's good to hear you. I won't go into more detail of the conversation. I would just say that you have to take a look at what happened last night. We've been using the word unprecedented. It also was an unprecedented success. It proved the superiority of the Israeli Defense Forces. It proved the military superiority of the United States and our other partners that participated in this. That was an incredible success. And I think that was also the tone and tenor of the discussion that the president and the Prime Minister had. Now, look, the war cabinet's meeting, they'll make decisions that they're going to make, and we'll see what they say. But the president has, from the very beginning, as I said earlier, not wanted to see this broaden into a wider regional conflict. And we're not looking for a war with Iran.

BOWMAN: Well, if Israel does attack, isn't that now a regional war?

KIRBY: Again, I won't get ahead of where we are, Tom. Again, look at last night - an incredible success by the Israeli Defense Forces in defending their people and their soil. That is noteworthy all by itself. And again, with the president's leadership pre-positioning, actually having U.S. forces involved in that active defense - everything we're doing is trying to prevent a wider regional conflict. And there's certainly no reason, in our view, that it needs to become so.

BOWMAN: And along those lines, the U.S. shot down at least three Iranian ballistic missiles, we're told. Can you provide any more detail and also any indication Iran is planning additional attacks, either against Israel or U.S. interests?

KIRBY: We haven't - we're watching very, very closely - monitoring the threat picture, as you might imagine. We didn't see any threats or attacks to U.S. personnel or facilities in the region last night. We're obviously not taking that for granted - watching closely, still not seeing anything that would that would give us a concern that an imminent threat is coming to our troops and facilities. But again, the president was also clear, has been clear - we've been clear with Iran that we will do what we need to do to protect those troops and facilities in Iraq and Syria and throughout the region. We've proven that in the past. We'll continue to prove that going forward.

BOWMAN: And as far as the Iranian ballistic missiles shot down by the U.S., anything more on that?

KIRBY: I don't have exact details. I think the Pentagon would have more in terms of the numbers. I can tell you that U.S. Navy destroyers did, in fact, contribute to shooting down some Iranian ballistic missiles. The exact number - I think I'd refer you to the Pentagon for that. And, of course, U.S. aircraft also played a significant role in shooting down several dozens of Iranian drones. And of course, no question about it, the Israeli's air defense system, which is just superb, proved how strong it is last night in really taking down the lion's share. But if you think about it, Tom, I mean, several hundred drones and missiles, more than 115 ballistic missiles alone, fired from Iran, and only a handful were able to get through, and the damage they caused was so minimal. I mean, there's no way to look at what happened last night and see this as a success for Iran. But you certainly can take a look at what happened last night and see it as a tremendous success for Israel.

RASCOE: That's - thanks, Tom. Admiral, what do these events involving Iran mean for U.S. efforts to bring a cease-fire to Gaza and to arrange a release of Israeli hostages?

KIRBY: Well, there's a proposal on the table. Hamas needs to take it. And this latest proposal, spearheaded by CIA director Bill Burns, really does move the ball forward. The Israelis are on board with it. Our other partners are on board with it. Hamas needs to take it because it would get us out several dozen of the most at risk hostages - the elderly, the sick, wounded, women, and it would also provide for a six-week cease-fire that would not only bring calm and peace to Gaza for a period of time, but also really allow us to dramatically increase humanitarian assistance - not just getting it into Gaza, across the border, but getting it through Gaza, getting it into the mouths of people that are hungry and need it. So it's a critical effort. We are still working at that. The ball is in Hamas' court. They really need to take the deal.

RASCOE: Can I ask you right now about the relationship with Israel and how complicated that is? Obviously, the U.S. is standing behind Israel and says they will come to their aid. But the U.S. is also asking for changes in the approach to Gaza. The U.S. also seems to be asking for Israel to be thoughtful in its response to this attack from Iran. Talk to me about that.

KIRBY: Well, we don't see that as very complicated at all. I mean, that's the idea of being a friend and being an ally that you're there for one another. As the president proved, we were there for Israel last night. But you're also there for one another in terms of being able to have candid, forthright conversations and disagreeing as is appropriate on the manner in which some operations are being conducted. And we've never been bashful about doing that. Since the beginning of the conflict, the president has been very direct with Prime Minister Netanyahu, as we all have at various levels with our Israeli counterparts about the way operations are prosecuted.

That's what being a friend is, because ultimately, we want Israel to defeat this threat from Hamas, and we know that the way they do that actually has an effect on the narrative Hamas gets to propagate and the victimhood that Hamas gets to try to wrap their arms around. There are real victims in Gaza, but they are innocent people of Gaza and Palestinians that are not being well served by what Hamas did on the 7 of October or by what Hamas has done since then.

So, look, nothing's going to change about the fact that Israel is an ally and a friend. Nothing's going to change about the communications between the prime minister and the president. They will continue to talk. And what we've asked the Israelis to do is to allow more humanitarian assistance in. And I would tell you on that last point, they have acted on those commitments. The president asked them for more. They're doing more. I mean, just in the last several days, more than 2,000 trucks have been able to get into Gaza. That's a record since the beginning of this conflict. Is it enough? No. Absolutely not. More needs to happen. It's got to be sustained. But the Israelis are moving forward on meeting some of those commitments.

BOWMAN: And John, along those lines with Rafah, any indication from the Israelis about their military plan and humanitarian plan? They have to move more than a million Palestinians. Any sense of how that will be achieved?

KIRBY: That's going to be a tall order. So you're talking about more than a million, maybe a million and a half people that are going to have to find their way to safety and security and have sustenance available for them wherever they go - food, water, medicine - and that's a tall order for any military.

BOWMAN: A tall order, but any details on how they'll do that?

KIRBY: We are looking forward to having conversations with the Israelis here in coming days about their intentions for Rafah. They have not moved on Rafah yet. They have given us an assurance that they'll allow these conversations between us to occur before they do, and we're looking forward to that. We're looking forward to hearing what their plans are, and to sharing our own lessons learned from this kind of fighting with them.

RASCOE: Thanks to Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. Thank you both for joining us this morning.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

KIRBY: Thank you both. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.