News Brief: Latest Iran Developments, Australia's Wildfires

Jan 6, 2020
Originally published on January 6, 2020 7:37 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In more than 40 years of confrontation between the United States and Iran, only a few moments have felt as perilous as this one.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Iran is vowing, quote, "hard revenge" after a U.S. strike killed an Iranian general. President Trump is vowing destruction inside Iran if its forces target any Americans. We are tracing the words and deeds of both sides this morning, and we begin on the streets of Tehran. Thousands of mourners followed a procession for the body of General Qassem Soleimani. The eulogists for the prominent general included Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Another, Mahmoud Karimi (ph), spoke partly in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAHMOUD KARIMI: Hey, U.S., you started. We will end it.

INSKEEP: You started it. We will end it.

Our colleague Mary Louise Kelly of All Things Considered has been on the streets of Tehran for the procession today. Hey there, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What have you seen?

KELLY: Exactly what you just played. We have seen streets filled with thousands and thousands and thousands of people - hard to capture the size of these crowds. Iranian state TV was putting it at millions. That's impossible to verify when you're in the thick of it. But huge turnout. And we saw signs saying exactly that, saying - hey, U.S., you started this; we will end it. We saw big red flags with the words hard revenge written across it. We saw signs reading down with USA in English. I'm told in Farsi they actually read death to USA - so a little bit stronger in the Persian version there.

And then just everywhere - the number of billboards that they have put up seemingly overnight - certainly since Tehran woke up to the news of Soleimani's death on Friday - billboards all over the city. Many, many just within one block showing the face of Soleimani, showing him with Supreme Leader Khamenei, calling him a martyr. And people are carrying, you know, handheld-sized versions of these signs, along with "Down With USA" signs. And the streets were jammed all morning long.

INSKEEP: How were you responded to as an obvious foreigner in this crowd of people mourning a cult-like figure who was killed by the United States?

KELLY: It's interesting. We definitely stood out. As I say, we saw thousands and thousands of people. I didn't see a single other person who looked visibly Western. It was all Iranians out there this morning - men, women, children - many of them wanting to speak to us, wanting to tell us what was on their mind.

You know, at one point, there was a huge crush as the crowd is being pushed back and people are almost being pushed over. And a guy crashed into me and nearly knocked me over. And immediately, two other men stepped in, held their arms out, told him to get back - looked at me, put their hands to their hearts in a sign of respect and made sure I was OK and then kept moving.

So people were respectful but also angry. We had people coming up and wanting to talk about revenge. One woman who we spoke to who plucked at my sleeve and wanted to stop - this is a woman who runs a travel agency here in Tehran - she says, I don't come out to demonstrations; this is not my thing. But she says, this man, Soleimani, died for the honor of Iran. So should I. I'm willing to fight. My family will fight.

INSKEEP: And there's a bit of other news out of Tehran that Iran has suspended its cooperation with the nuclear deal - the deal that the United States has backed out of. What exactly are they saying?

KELLY: That's right. Iran has been inching toward this, and now we have this statement from President Rouhani's office, saying they will no longer observe the restrictions on fuel enrichment or on the size of enriched uranium stockpiles. But this is not a total collapse. They're saying they're going to continue cooperating with international inspectors, letting them into nuclear sites. So I want to underscore this is not yet Iran racing towards a nuclear bomb.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise, thanks for the update.

KELLY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has been on the streets of Tehran today.

Now, as Iran talks of "hard revenge" - that's a quote from Iranian officials - President Trump is making dramatic threats.

MARTIN: The president talked of destruction inside Iran. To legal experts, some of his statements sounded like threats to commit war crimes. He has added threats against Iraq. This is the country where a U.S. drone strike killed General Soleimani.

INSKEEP: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is on the line. Ayesha, good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Let's work through the president's threats. What is he saying about Iran?

RASCOE: So he first raised this idea, in a tweet over the weekend, that the U.S. has a list of 52 potential targets for Iran, including some that are important to Iranian culture. Then he talked to reporters in his cabin on Air Force One on his way back to D.C. from Florida. And he doubled down on this, saying that he doesn't think targeting cultural sites should be off limits. He said that Iran has killed, maimed and tortured U.S. citizens - and if they can engage in that type of behavior, then the U.S. can go after culturally significant places.

INSKEEP: OK - a couple of symbolic things to note there - first, you said 52. The president said that number was chosen because that was the number of American hostages taken by Iranians at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran more than 40 years ago. But the other thing, saying that cultural sites would be targets for U.S. retaliation - is that legal?

RASCOE: It doesn't seem like it's legal in the sense that going after religious or cultural sites would be a violation of international treaties. For instance, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property specifically bans this type of attack. So depending on what the president does, it could be a war crime.

INSKEEP: So the president, as one of his statements said, you know, it doesn't work that way - that the cultural sites are off-limits. But it appears that according to international law, that it generally does work that way depending on the specific circumstances.

Now, we mentioned the threats against Iraq, Iran's neighbor, which is where this attack took place. We know that Iraq's Parliament voted to expel U.S. troops - in fact, voted to expel all foreign forces from the country. Nonbinding at this point, but that was the vote in Parliament. What's the president's response?

RASCOE: So he's threatening that if the government goes through with this, that the U.S. will impose very big sanctions. He said the sanctions would be even more severe than the U.S. sanctions on Iran. He said the U.S. would not leave unless Iraq pays back billions of dollars that the U.S. invested in an air base there. So the president is really ratcheting up his rhetoric toward Iran and Iraq.

INSKEEP: Just to be clear - so the president is now threatening massive sanctions - worse sanctions than on Iran - against this country, Iraq, which has been broadly allied with the United States and that the U.S. has trying to been - encourage as a democracy. Is that correct?

RASCOE: Yes, he's saying that they will face sanctions if they don't allow U.S. troops to stay in Iraq.

INSKEEP: One other thing - what is the administration saying about Americans' safety as we hear these threats of retaliation against Americans throughout the region?

RASCOE: So Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did a round of interviews yesterday. And he said that despite warnings from the State Department about being in Iraq, that America is safer today. Here's Pompeo on NBC's "Meet The Press," where he was asked about expecting retaliation from Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

MIKE POMPEO: President Trump is focused deeply on keeping Americans safe over the long haul. Preserving and protecting, defending America is the mission that we have. It may be that there's a little noise here in the interim and that the Iranians make the choice to respond. I hope that they don't. President Trump has made clear what we will do in response if they do that. Our response will be decisive and vigorous, just as it has been so far.

RASCOE: So Pompeo is promising retaliation if Iran retaliates against the U.S.

INSKEEP: Ayesha, thanks so much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. And on this dramatic day, we have the view from Washington and from Tehran.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: In Australia, brushfires that started more than four months ago are still growing - to the point where some of the damage is visible from space.

MARTIN: At least 25 people have died in these fires. Thousands have evacuated their homes. Smoke from the fires has made the air hazardous to breathe in some of Australia's biggest cities.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in one of those cities - Sydney, Australia. Hi there, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What have you been seeing and hearing and smelling where you are?

BEAUBIEN: I mean, these fires are just dominating Australia at the moment. It's kind of amazing when you think about it. Just from Western Australia, you've got a bunch of truckers that just had to be led out of the Outback by police to get them through these fires that had been trapping them for days. Meanwhile, all the way on the other side of the country on the southeast, you've got people who have been stranded on beaches. You've had people in South Australia on Kangaroo Island being killed by fires that are sweeping through. And this is all just in the last few days. And these fires have been going on for months.

People are saying this is unprecedented. That's what I'm hearing from people. And they also seem to be recognizing that this seems to be the new normal. People accept that - most of the people that I talk to say, yeah, they can see that the climate is changing. It's much hotter. For 2019, it was the hottest and driest year on record. So people are trying to just scramble to cope with it the best they can.

INSKEEP: How does it affect people's health when they are breathing smoky air beneath an orange sky month after month after month?

BEAUBIEN: You know, people are saying that this is really not good for people's health. And in Canberra, the capital, which is south of me from Sydney, they've had air pollution that is 20 times what the government considers to be a hazardous level. That was just over this past weekend. Institutions have shut down. Kindergartens have been telling the people to keep their kids at home. The amount of smoke that is being generated by these unprecedented fires, it's having a huge effect on people's health.

INSKEEP: Does it affect people even in Sydney, where you are are, where it seems to be safe but people look at a map and know they're surrounded by fire?

BEAUBIEN: I mean, you do see it in the air here. It's quite hazy. Definitely, the smoke from the surrounding fires drifts in here. It's not as bad. We are on the coast, and so it tends to blow through. It's not as bad as some of these other places.

But in the southeast, there's planes that were coming in to try to do an evacuation out of this town that - where people have been stranded on a beach. And they couldn't get the planes in there because the sky was just this orange of smoke. They had some cameras inside the cockpit. And you could just look out from the cockpit, and all you could see was just this orange haze. The impact of the smoke has been just huge in the places where the fires are really burning at the hottest.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Jason Beaubien in Sydney, Australia, today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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