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After Missile Launch, White House Warns Iran But Offers No Action Plan


We're going to follow up now on an unusual warning from the White House.


MICHAEL FLYNN: As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.

SHAPIRO: That's National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He spoke at the White House lectern yesterday to blast Iran for what he called destabilizing behavior that included launching a ballistic missile over the weekend. Flynn took no questions and offered no details as to how the U.S. might respond. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports on what a Trump Iran policy might look like.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: General Flynn had barely stepped away from the lectern before questions started flying. What exactly does it mean to put Iran on notice? Nick Burns is a veteran of the State Department and the National Security Council who served every administration from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. He reads the on-notice warning this way.

NICK BURNS: That term is an implicit threat either to use force or to mount substantial sanctions against Iran. That's how the Iranian government is going to look at this.

KELLY: Administration officials have pointedly refused to say whether military action is on or off the table. There is word that new sanctions against Iran may be rolled out as soon as tomorrow. And President Trump himself, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning, left no doubt he intends to practice confrontational diplomacy.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have to be tough. It's time we're going to be a little tough, folks. We're taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually. It's not going to happen anymore.

JAMES JEFFREY: I'm delighted that we're putting Iran on notice.

KELLY: James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey - so what does he think it means to put Iran on notice?

JEFFREY: It's a beating of the chest. In and of itself, it's not a bad idea.

KELLY: Jeffrey, now at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes the U.S. should be beefing up its forces in the Persian Gulf. And he argues the Trump administration is absolutely right to take a tough line with Tehran right from the start.

JEFFREY: We're all used to the Obama administration, which never talked tough other than terrorists and would ponder policies literally for three or four years without ever quite coming to a decision 'cause there was already some problem. There's nothing wrong with laying down a marker.

KELLY: Colin Kahl takes the opposite view. Kahl was among the Obama administration's most prominent voices on Iran. Until two weeks ago, he served as national security adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden. Kahl asks, why would you step into the White House briefing room and announce you're going to hold Iran accountable before you have a plan in place to do so?

COLIN KAHL: Normally, White Houses don't like to announce policy before there's actual policy. You know, one of the things that used to be said around the Situation Room a lot when I was at the White House is superpowers can't bluff. So if they really need to take action against the Iranians, it'd be clarifying to them and to the American public about what exactly they mean.

KELLY: And that may be the plan tomorrow if the U.S., as expected, imposes additional sanctions under executive orders inherited from the Obama administration. Nick Burns, the former State Department official, says the new president and his advisers would be smart to make sure allies both in the Middle East and Europe are onboard. And he argues that a private warning through diplomatic channels might work better than saber-rattling in public.

BURNS: I think the Trump team is right to say that we need to contain Iranian power in the Middle East. But I wonder about the wisdom of making a public, very bellicose threat in the second week of the administration because this is serious business. And you want to be very careful that you don't do anything that could lead into an unintended conflict.

KELLY: Burns says he sees a pattern emerging from the Trump administration of pugnacious statements not just against Iran but against longtime allies. He points to President Trump's war of words with Mexico and now apparently Australia. It's fine to argue with friends, says Burns, the longtime diplomat, but you do that behind the scenes. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.