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News Brief: U.S.-Iran Tensions, Puerto Rico Aftershocks


Over the weekend, there were protests in Iran. But they were not protests against the United States.





So videos shared on social media showed demonstrators chanting, "they are lying that America is our enemy. Our enemy is here."

Now, we should point out that NPR could not independently authenticate these videos. But what do the protesters mean by, our enemy is here? Well, they're responding to an admission by Iran that it accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner in Tehran. At first, Iran blamed a mechanical issue for the crash that killed 176 people, nearly half of whom were Iranians.

KING: NPR international correspondent Peter Kenyon has been following all of this from Istanbul. Hey, Peter.


KING: So a few days before these current protests, Iranians were really angry at the United States for the killing of Qassem Soleimani. Now they're angry at their own government. This tragedy with the plane seems to have really hit people there hard.

KENYON: Oh, it definitely did. I mean, this crash of a Ukrainian airliner with mostly Iranians on board and then three days of denials that the government had anything to do with it before, as evidence mounted, finally the admission came that the Iranian military had fired at the passenger jet - apparently, one person said, after an officer mistook it for an incoming cruise missile. That's one explanation that's been offered. Just a day earlier, the head of Iran's Civil Aviation Organization had flatly declared he was certain that no missiles had hit the aircraft.

The earlier protests back in November that we saw were very different, over economic issues - a 50% hike in the price of gasoline. But now these protests are basically targeting the regime, and it's on the defensive. Even the head of the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps has been forced to apologize on national television, and he's been called before a closed-door session of Parliament.

KING: What did the demonstrators want?

KENYON: Well, first of all, honesty from their government. Many of these demonstrations began as memorials, vigils for those who were killed in the shootdown but quickly transformed into anti-government protests. And people say the government's lies infuriated them in addition to, of course, all these civilian deaths - 82 Iranians believed to have been on that flight along with 63 Canadians, other foreign nationals. One well-known actor had this reaction. He said, quote, "did you really need three days to count the missiles and realize that two were missing?" So obviously, there's sarcasm, there's anger and very strong feelings.

KING: Very strong feelings. And Iran does have a history of getting violent with people who go out in the streets and protest. So is that a worry here?

KENYON: Well, yes. It's already happening. Two days of protests and police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets - by some accounts, live ammunition - although the police say no live ammo was used in Tehran. These protests, of course, are happening in other cities, as well. And there's certainly a risk that further protests could trigger an even harsher crackdown.

KING: So as the protests turn away from the United States and toward the Iranian government, Iran says that Washington is exploiting this. They're probably referring to the fact that President Trump has been tweeting about all this. Right?

KENYON: He has. His tweets said, do not kill your protesters; the world is watching. Earlier, there were calls on Iran to allow human rights groups in to see what's going on. The U.S. has said it's behind the demonstrators. Tehran dismissed the Twitter comments, saying it was Trump who caused the chain of events by killing General Soleimani.

KING: And so I guess the big question here, Peter, is - does this put real pressure on the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?

KENYON: Khamenei is in serious pressure right now, no question about it. Just days ago, people were rising up in fury at America over the drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani. But now that has all turned and more into chants of death to the dictator and condemnation of the military after this killing of civilians aboard a passenger jet.

KING: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Noel.

KING: All right. So that's how this is all unfolding in Iran. Now we're going to take a look at what's happening here in the U.S.

GREENE: Well, last week here in the U.S., Fox News host Laura Ingraham asked President Trump about the intelligence that led the U.S. to kill General Soleimani. Trump told her that the Iranian general was planning an imminent attack against U.S. interests.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies.

GREENE: OK. So that was Friday. Yesterday, Trump's Defense Secretary Mark Esper gave a different account on CBS' "Face The Nation."


MARK ESPER: Well, the president didn't say that is was a - he didn't cite a specific piece of evidence. What he said is he probably - he believed - could have been...

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you saying there wasn't one?

ESPER: I didn't see one with regard to four embassies.

KING: NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson is on the line. Good morning, Mara.


KING: So Defense Secretary Esper says he didn't see evidence about the four embassies that President Trump says were targets. What do you make of the fact that he says - well, the president's saying something, but I didn't see that?

LIASSON: It sounds like there's no evidence for this. It sounds like Secretary Esper was being as honest as he could while still covering for his boss. And this provides grist for those who are skeptical of the intelligence that led to this strike. Many members of Congress who had the briefings from the administration say they didn't hear any evidence that there were imminent attacks. But the administration seems to be wedded to their argument that there was an imminent attack rather than just saying the reason they killed General Soleimani was because of his years of crimes against Americans in the regions. He has the blood of Americans on his hands, and they wanted to show the regime that America wasn't going to stand for it.

KING: So this question of whether or not the president can be believed is raising an interesting point that should play out this week. Members of Congress might consider a resolution that would limit the president's war powers. Now, the House passed it. The belief was that the Senate probably would not - the Republican-controlled Senate. Could Esper's comments change any minds in the Senate, do you think?

LIASSON: They certainly don't help. But you'd need four Republicans to pass the resolution in the Senate, and we haven't seen that yet. Only two of them have come out and said they'd vote with the Democrats on the War Powers Resolution. And also, this resolution is not a law. It doesn't need the president's signature. Even if it passed, it might not have any practical effect.

KING: OK. The other big story on Capitol Hill - and I don't want to let you go without asking about this - the articles of impeachment. What are you looking out for this week?

LIASSON: Yes, the other big separation of powers battle on Capitol Hill - 'cause there are two fights over whether the executive should have unchecked power. Look - Nancy Pelosi is going to send over the articles this week. The Senate will conduct a trial on Mitch McConnell's terms. Pelosi says no witnesses is an equivalent to a cover-up. McConnell says he won't discuss witnesses until after opening arguments.

Meanwhile, the president is of many minds on this subject 'cause yesterday at around 11 a.m., he tweeted that Pelosi and Schiff - Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee - should both be called as witnesses. But a few hours later, he tweeted that to have a trial rather than an outright dismissal would give the Democrat witch hunt credibility it shouldn't have. So sometimes it looks like he thinks a trial would be good for him; other times, he wants to deep-six the whole thing.

KING: OK - NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.


KING: A question that many Puerto Ricans are asking themselves - when will their island stop shaking?

GREENE: Yeah. They're asking it because on Saturday, a strong aftershock rattled the island again. This caused millions in damage along Puerto Rico's southern coast. This is the same area also rocked by recent quakes within the last two weeks. This 5.9 magnitude earthquake over the weekend came after a 6.4 magnitude quake shook the same area four days earlier. It killed one man, cut power across much of the southern part of the island. And for many islanders, predicting the next possible quake is really becoming this grim guessing game.

KING: NPR's Adrian Florido is in Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan. Hi, Adrian.


KING: So I was watching your Twitter feed this weekend and watching it with some amount of nervousness. Let me ask you - what was the last thing you felt?

FLORIDO: Well, I was in the southern region of the island, which is where these quakes have been centered and where most of the damage has been concentrated. And the last large aftershock I felt was that 5.9 on Saturday morning. It was pretty scary. But there have been a lot of aftershocks since then, including a couple of moderate ones that - last night.

KING: Are you being told to expect more? I imagine scientists are probably making predictions just to either calm people down or to alert them. What are you being told about what could happen next?

FLORIDO: Seismologists say that the shaking will continue for at least a couple of weeks.

KING: Wow.

FLORIDO: And I should say that, you know, all this shaking has people in the affected area really on edge, dealing with a lot of anxiety because that big quake last week crumbled hundreds of homes. And so the big issue right now is that thousands of people have abandoned their houses. They're too afraid to sleep inside out of fear that their house could be the next one to crumble if another big quake hits.

And so people have been sleeping outside and making encampments on the sides of roads, in the mountainsides. Or they're going to these big open-air shelters that local officials have set up on open fields or on - or like, in baseball stadiums.

KING: What are people telling you about how they're doing? I'm just trying to imagine being pushed out of my house and not having a timeline as to when I might be able to return. How are people coping?

FLORIDO: People are not coping that well, to be honest with you. I mean, you know, Puerto Rico is not used to earthquakes. And so you have to remember that people are still sort of dealing with the anxiety and the trauma of Hurricane Maria and were in the process of recovery from that when this earthquake hit last week and all these aftershocks have continued. And so there's a lot of anxiety. And mental health officials are going out, trying to calm people down because they fear a mental health crisis arising out of all this uncertainty as people feel like they can't return home and don't know when they're going to be able to do that.

There is sort of a little bright spot, which is that, you know, Puerto Ricans across the island have been mobilizing to take supplies down to the affected area in hopes of, you know, making people's lives a little bit more comfortable while they live in this sort of time of uncertainty.

KING: So people helping other people out - that's really nice to hear. I wonder - have government officials said anything about what recovery will look like? Or is it too soon given the fact that you expect more aftershocks?

FLORIDO: In some way, it is too soon. A lot of that will depend on what kind of money is available. And that'll depend on whether the president signs a federal disaster declaration, which the governor of Puerto Rico requested last week.

KING: OK. NPR's Adrian Florido in San Juan. Adrian, thanks so much, and stay safe, please.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.