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Why Retaliate Against Iran For Shootdown Of Unmanned U.S. Drone?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As of now at least the United States military has not struck Iran. President Trump reportedly called off a strike he had previously approved yesterday. The New York Times first reported that development, which other news organizations have confirmed. NPR has not independently confirmed that. We do know the U.S. has been considering its response after Iran shot down an unmanned surveillance plane. The U.S. says the drone was in international airspace, and Iran says it was in Iran's airspace. Admiral Jim Stavridis is with us now to help analyze this. He was supreme allied commander at NATO some years ago. Admiral, welcome back to the program.

JIM STAVRIDIS: Great to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is there precedent for a president of the United States to say yes to a strike and the planes are actually going down the runway and then he says no?

STAVRIDIS: It has happened from time to time. I think a thing to focus on here is it could be a variety of factors. It could be because that target has moved. It could be that missile had a maintenance issue. There are a lot of arguments here, but I would say bottom line I can't think of an instance where a decision has gotten pulled back if that's what actually happened.

INSKEEP: OK. The line is a little difficult, so I'm going to repeat a bit of what you said. You mentioned there might be technical reasons to pull back a strike, like if you discovered the targets were not where you thought that they were. And, of course, presidents have been known to change their minds; President Obama seemed to in 2013 over Syria. But then you said it's rare for a sudden abrupt reversal like this. Is that what you're saying?

STAVRIDIS: That's exactly right, Steve. And I think that it will be perceived abroad as somewhat indecisive. And I think it also says that that the president's inner team, his national security team, might be at odds here. And we have to mention now we also have a missing secretary of defense at the moment. These are the times when you wish you had Jim Mattis still in that seat.

INSKEEP: OK. Admiral Stavridis, I think you're on a cellphone there, and I'm going to invite you to just move a couple of feet to see if that improves the reception and just note that you're saying that the president's advisers - the advisory team is a little thin at the moment. You said a missing secretary of defense because the secretary of defense - the acting secretary of defense withdrew from consideration and is being replaced right in the middle of this crisis. I want to move to the question of why the United States would choose to retaliate militarily for the shooting down of this unmanned drone. The president himself in his public remarks seemed to minimize it and to note it's - note that it was a big mistake in his view by Iran but that it was an unmanned aircraft, that no one was killed. But we've heard from other officials the phrase restoring deterrence, that it would be a good idea to strike Iran to restore deterrence. What does that mean?

STAVRIDIS: It means that we have allowed the Iranians to take out a significant $130 million platform. This thing is the size - its wingspan is the same as a 737. So I think this is not just like a little drone like you have in your backyard flying around. This is a serious piece of military equipment, high tech, very expensive. I think there is an argument to be made for some kind of retaliation. If not missiles flying, do it with cyber. Do it with special forces.

Above all, let's keep pressing the diplomatic path here. And that means getting the Europeans on board. And to get them on board, we have to definitively show that that drone was in international airspace. And we can do that. We have the satellite imagery to do it. We also need to show that Iran was using limpet mines to attack tankers in the Gulf. I think if we win that battle of the narrative, Steve, we can pull the Europeans and then press the Iranians back to the table. That's the best hope.

INSKEEP: Admiral, what are the risks of a kinetic response, as people in the military say, missiles flying?

STAVRIDIS: I think they're quite high at this point, and I don't see the Iranians backing down to the United States. They might be backed down by a real reinvigoration of an international coalition to deal with them. That's going to require pulling the Europeans back on side.

INSKEEP: Admiral Stavridis, thanks for your insights, really appreciate it.

STAVRIDIS: Thank you very much, Steve. Sorry for the static at the beginning.

INSKEEP: That's OK. That's OK. It was worth listening hard to hear what you had to say. James Stavridis is a former NATO supreme allied commander. He is talking with us amid news that President Trump approved and then canceled airstrikes against Iran in retaliation for the shooting down of a drone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.