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Biden vows to respond to deadly drone attack. What might that response look like?


President Biden blames groups linked to Iran for the weekend attack on U.S. troops. We've been reporting on this drone attack that killed three Americans and wounded more than 30 others. It happened at a U.S. base in a far corner of Jordan, one of several bases the United States quietly has throughout the Middle East. Iran supports militant groups throughout that same region and has been supportive of Hamas in its war against U.S. ally Israel. Robin Wright is following all of this. She's a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, a think tank that provides insights here in Washington. Robin, good morning. Welcome back.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And I'll just tell people distinguished fellow is your title, but you're also quite distinguished. And I'm glad to have you on the program. Let's talk about the groups that Iran maintains or supports. We're not exactly sure who conducted this attack, but who's there and how are they connected to Iran, if at all?

WRIGHT: Well, Iran has what it calls an axis of resistance that includes several militias in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon and, of course, now in Yemen. Many of them have targeted the United States and our allies. They've been involved in Iraq with American forces who are there to deal with the remnants of the Islamic State. In Syria, they've been attacked 90 times by these Iranian-backed militias and in Iraq 60 times. And then you have the Houthis firing on naval forces dozens of times now since November 19 in the Red Sea, a vital strategic waterway. So we have now a whole new front opening up in Jordan. And that's why this is such an important turning point.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should note, this U.S. base was in a corner of Jordan, near the border. It's near Iraq. It's near Syria. U.S. troops, of course, are in both of those countries in different ways. And the bases work together. When you hear of one of these attacks, like the one over the weekend, do you assume that Iran directly ordered it?

WRIGHT: Not necessarily. Iran has armed, trained, in some cases actually created these militias. But many of them are now two generations old. They've been around since the 1980s, and many of them are battle hardened. Those - most of them have their own local agendas. They also want the Americans out. But Iran is clearly complicit in all of these actions because these groups would not be there if Iran hadn't supported them. The question is, has Iran actually ordered this one? There have been some backchannel communications between Washington and Tehran to say they don't want the war that has been playing out since October 7 between Israel and Gaza to expand. But frankly, I think we've crossed that threshold now.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that from the Iranian perspective as well. You've just said the United States does not want the war to expand. Iran has said in the past that they don't want a regional war. Do you think they are more in a posture of actually thinking it's in their interest to widen this conflict more and more?

WRIGHT: It may not be in their interest at the moment. There is a sense that both Iran and Hezbollah do not want a war - or a bigger war - at the moment - down the road, possibly. But Iran and Hezbollah and all the other militias - Kataib Hezbollah, which is based in Iraq, the new Nujaba Movement based in Iraq, but both of them operate in Syria as well - want the Americans out. They - you know, this has been a longtime campaign, and this has been true of Iran since its 1979 revolution. And it has in many ways spawned these groups, in part to pressure the United States and its allies to threaten Israel and to try to get the U.S. to withdraw some or all of its forces.

INSKEEP: I think you just said that you feel that we've passed the threshold from not having a regional war to more or less having one. We could discuss the exact definition, but I'd like to figure out what you think is happening. Is it possible that what is happening here is that each side, the United States and Iran, doesn't really want a wider war, but each side is pushed by its local actors, pushed into a corner, felt that it - feels that it needs to respond, and this is spinning out of control?

WRIGHT: I think the issue is momentum, and we've seen 10 different conflicts that have been playing out in the Middle East until October 7. Israel faced Hamas to the south, Hezbollah to the north. It faced the 16 Arab states across the region that have not recognized it and are still technically in a state of war. And then it had a shadow war with Iran. You had the Yemenis having a civil war, a regional war. And these wars are now intersecting with the Americans in Iraq and Syria as well. So the danger is that you see the Americans going in to try to prevent a wider war, to contain the violence, and instead only providing more targets.

INSKEEP: Robin Wright, an Iran expert at the Wilson Center. Thanks, as always, for your insights.

WRIGHT: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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