News Brief: Iran Shoots Down U.S. Drone, Biden Comments, China-North Korea

Jun 20, 2019
Originally published on June 20, 2019 11:45 am
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We are in the middle of another tense moment between the U.S. and Iran.


Iran's Revolutionary Guard announced overnight that it has shot down a U.S. drone. A U.S. official has confirmed to NPR that the aircraft has been downed but disputes Tehran's account of the facts.

KING: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul. He's been following this story. Hi, Peter.


KING: All right. So a lot remains to be seen. But what do we know so far?

KENYON: Well, we know that an unmanned U.S. military drone has been taken down, and we know Iran was responsible. The report first came in from an Iranian news site that's linked to the Revolutionary Guard Corps. It was picked up by the state news agency. After an initial U.S. response that did not appear to confirm the downing, an American official does confirm to NPR and others that the drone was indeed shot down.

KING: All right. But there is a dispute over where it was shot down, right? Iran says it shot down the drone over its airspace; the U.S. says it was over international waters. Why is this significant?

KENYON: Well, I'll tell you why it's significant - because it's a question of whether this was a defensive move or not. This was the cause of some confusion early on. After the initial Iranian reports, which said it happened inside Iranian airspace over southern Iran, the U.S. military's response was very narrow - said we didn't have any aircraft operating in Iranian airspace Wednesday. Then a bit later, officials began saying the shoot-down did occur but it was in international waters. And that would seem a move to undermine any effort by Iran to call this a matter of defensiveness.

KING: Interesting. So once that is established, it could mean a lot. I mean, Peter, you've been on with us the past couple of weeks talking about this...


KING: ...Back and forth and how it's been escalating. And you know, the context is really important. How big is this development this morning?

KENYON: Well, it's definitely big. How big depends, probably, on the U.S. response, first of all. It certainly could escalate the situation further. This was, on the one hand, an unmanned aircraft - a pilotless aircraft, I guess I should say. That's important because, as you know, the Trump administration has warned that the death of even a single American in this dispute could lead to a really strong response.

So militarily, this hasn't altered the situation very much. But as an act of aggression, this could be seen in Washington as justifying a strong response. So in terms of ratcheting up tensions, this could be a lot more significant than the physical loss of one drone. There will likely be voices inside the administration saying this demands a response, and a lot could depend on what kind of response that turns out to be.

KING: Peter, is there precedent for this? Has Iran shot down a U.S. drone ever before?

KENYON: Years ago - several years ago, they were parading a drone that they claimed to have captured. There were some disputes about the circumstances. There were no huge escalations and tension surrounding that.

KING: So I know it is hard to predict. But what do you imagine happens next?

KENYON: Well, the one thing we're not seeing in the immediate aftermath is cooler heads prevailing. The head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard is already saying, hey, we're sending a clear message to America. Commander Hossein Salami says they're not looking for war but will react strongly against any aggression. And we should note, this is different from previous incidents. This is a U.S. military aircraft - a direct attack, and that's why some will be calling for a response.

KING: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Noel.


KING: All right. Joe Biden is in hot water yet again.

MARTIN: He intended to highlight his track record of working with lawmakers that he doesn't agree with. The problem is the example that Biden chose to cite. He recounted working with two senators who are known for supporting racist policies. Biden's 2020 Democratic rivals were quick to criticize. The presidential hopeful made the remarks at a New York City fundraiser Tuesday night. Since then, the former vice president has said he has nothing to apologize for.

KING: NPR's political correspondent Scott Detrow is in studio with us. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

KING: So what did Joe Biden say exactly?

DETROW: Yeah. So he was talking about how he's been criticized for trying to work with Republicans. So at this fundraiser, he talked about working with Mississippi Senator James Eastland, Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge, who were both Democrats but they were both staunch segregationists - that's to say, they pushed for policies that kept people separated based on race and opposed things like civil rights legislation.

So talking about Eastland in particular, Biden said - and here are the two quotes - "he never called me boy. He always called me son." And he went on to say, "at least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn't agree on much of anything, but we got things done."

Eastland, in particular, was unapologetically racist. There are some shocking quotes from him during the Montgomery bus boycott, talking about Martin Luther King and other marchers in very graphic terms and talking about abolishing the African-American race as a whole.

KING: Oh...

DETROW: This was not nuanced...

KING: ...My goodness

DETROW: ...Language.

KING: So obviously, here, there is an opening for the other Democratic candidates to criticize Biden. What are they saying?

DETROW: The criticism was pretty harsh and quick. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker came out with a strong statement saying, you don't joke about calling black men boys. Vice President Biden's relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people and for everyone. He called on Biden to apologize. Kamala Harris, another black candidate in the race, another U.S. senator, said this at the U.S. Capitol.


KAMALA HARRIS: I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Biden. But to coddle the reputations of segregationists, of people who if they had their way, I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate, is, I think - it's just - it's misinformed, and it's wrong.

KING: And as Rachel said there, Biden has not apologized - or had not apologized. What is he saying to explain himself?

DETROW: Yeah. He was at another fundraiser last night, and he said this.


JOE BIDEN: Not a racist bone in my body - I've been involved in civil rights my whole career - period, period, period.

DETROW: And on top of that, he said that Cory Booker is the one who needs to apologize, which certainly surprised a lot of people hearing that comment. Biden supporters have been pointing out that he has repeatedly said the reason he decided to run in 2020 was President Trump's equivocating response on the violent Charlottesville white supremacist rally, that Biden has worked for civil rights legislation throughout his career and, among other things, is very proud to have been Barack Obama's vice president.

Jim Clyburn is the highest-ranking African-American lawmaker in the House, and he defended him, as well, yesterday. He told reporters, you don't have to agree with someone to work with them.

KING: OK. So we're entering a new phase of the 2020 presidential election. Debates start next week. Is this just what we should expect going forward?

DETROW: Yeah. I think we were expecting already a lot of the other candidates to really start criticizing Joe Biden, in particular, on this debate stage. He has a wide lead in the polls, and, you know, he has this more moderate approach to governing than a lot of the rest of the field. So far, the criticism we're starting to hear has been implicit, talking generally about his policies but not saying Joe Biden in particular.

I think this moment really broke the dam, and a lot of candidates are saying Joe Biden is wrong. And we're going to expect to hear a lot more of that next week and going forward.

KING: And Joe Biden, of course, been around a long time and has a lot of baggage. NPR's Scott Detrow. Thanks so much, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you.


KING: China's president, Xi Jinping, and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, are holding two days of talks starting today.

MARTIN: And the location of these talks is significant. They're happening in Pyongyang, North Korea. It marks the first time in 14 years that a Chinese leader has made a state visit to North Korea. And the meeting comes a little over a week before the G-20 nations hold their summit in Osaka, Japan.

KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul, South Korea. Hi, Anthony.


KING: All right. So why is President Xi going to North Korea? - first time in 14 years for a Chinese leader.

KUHN: Well, the official reason is that the two countries are going to mark the 70th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between Beijing and Pyongyang. And that means you're going to hear a lot of talk about socialist solidarity between comrades - the ruling Communist Party of China and the Worker's Party of North Korea - probably something about ties forged in blood in reference to the fact that they fought on the same side in the Korean War.

But they also have not had a Chinese leader in Pyongyang for so long, mostly because of the nuclear dispute. But now, look at the timing that you mentioned here. President Xi and President Trump spoke by phone this week, then Xi and Trump are going to meet in Osaka, Japan, after - with the Pyongyang meeting in between. So what's very likely, experts believe, is that Trump may have asked Xi by phone, get me some information on what Kim is thinking. And Xi may even deliver a message to Trump in Osaka.

So this really puts, you know, Xi Jinping in an interesting position as possibly a broker.

KING: It certainly does. So if he played broker, what would that mean, for example, with the ongoing U.S.-China trade war?

KUHN: Well, the U.S. has made it clear that cooperation on North Korea would help China on the trade war. And clearly, the trade war is Xi Jinping's biggest headache right now. It's hurting the Chinese economy. And if there's no progress in talks in Osaka, then President Trump has threatened to hit just about all Chinese exports to the U.S. with tariffs - or at least those which have not been hit already.

KING: Anthony, these summits are often aimed at telegraphing something to someone. If there is a message that this summit is sending to the U.S., what is that message?

KUHN: Well, from Xi's point of view, he's sort of sending the message that he can make or break a deal between the U.S. and North Korea. He wrote, in an op-ed piece in a North Korean newspaper, that he wants to push talks forward. He can also turn Kim against Trump, which Trump has sort of suggested in tweets before.

But Xi is sending a positive message this time. He doesn't need to send a spoiler message because everybody knows that. China can also do things such as sending a lot of tourists to North Korea or sending humanitarian food aid, both of which would help Kim but would not violate any sanctions. Also, remember that Kim Jong Un has refused further summits - for the moment - with the U.S. and South Korea.

KING: Yeah.

KUHN: But Kim has met with China and Russia. So he's signaling there that he has other options. If things don't work out with the U.S., he has a fallback position, which is support from China and Russia.


KING: And is this summit, just briefly, likely to be a very public one - photographers, all of that?

KUHN: Yes, there will be lots of pomp and ceremony. But there may also be a lot which is hidden and we don't find out about.

KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Anthony, thanks so much.

KUHN: You're welcome.

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