DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We are less than a week away from 2018. And, you know, Noel, in 2017 - in this business, especially - we just keep talking about the sheer number of headlines
NOEL KING, HOST:
So many headlines, especially in U.S. politics - so NPR's political editor Domenico Montanaro decided to try and rank the top political stories of the year and then turn them into a March Madness-style bracket.
GREENE: And Domenico is with us.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey.
GREENE: A March Madness-style bracket - were you just bored over the holiday weekend?
MONTANARO: I was bored, David.
MONTANARO: No. You know what it is - is that I was trying to do an end-of-the-year ranking for the biggest stories of the year, and the list just kept on growing. And I'm a pretty big March Madness fan, and for as long as I can remember - I think to when I was 8 - I was ranking things and putting them in brackets and thought, hey, why not try it with politics?
GREENE: So this is your thing, OK.
MONTANARO: This is my thing.
GREENE: So you have seeds, and I would - I gather the No. 1 seeds are the seeds - the stories that you think would be the big favorites to be the biggest news story of the year. So what are they?
MONTANARO: The chalk, as they would say in college basketball parlance. The overall No. 1 seed is the continuing fallout over sexual harassment, as you can imagine - just a huge story. It's touched every industry - going to be tough to beat. But then you look at the other No. 1s, and they're pretty strong too, including James Comey being fired - the former FBI director - the ensuing Russia probe by Robert Mueller that came out of that, and of course, the tree that almost everything in 2017 stems from - President Trump's inauguration, David.
GREENE: Which was a big, defining moment for this country. So are there sleepers? I mean, can we continue this metaphor and talk about schools or stories that might sneak up on us and, you know, be considered a big deal?
MONTANARO: Yeah, the only time that a 16 seed has defeated a 1 seed in college basketball history was in 1998 when the Harvard women's team beat Stanford. So there's never...
GREENE: Uh-huh, I watched that game, Domenico, you should know.
MONTANARO: There has never been a 1-16 upset in the men's tournament. You know, will the trend continue in this tournament? I don't know. Let's see. Some on Twitter have been threatening to advance Trump looks at eclipse over him being inaugurated, but kind of - that just feels like trolling.
GREENE: (Laughter) Yeah.
MONTANARO: I'd be shocked if that happens. I'd look instead at the 6-seeded Donald Trump Jr.'s email revelations - pretty big story to advance in the second round in that bracket. But it's going to be kind of hard for it to get past No. 3, gun violence. It was pretty sweeping, thematic story of the year, obviously. I'd also watch deportations and DACA at No. 5. There's been a lot of chatter about that, and lots of people in early brackets that have been coming in, picking that over Trump being inaugurated. And the one story a lot of people can't seem to let go - Anthony Scaramucci's 10 days in the White House. It is, by the way, an ironically seeded 10 seed to upset No. 7, New York truck attack - obviously, far more serious and important, but that's what happens when people decide.
GREENE: It's amazing. And I guess - I mean, you know, stories are things that people internalize personally, so something like gun violence - I mean, it's something that someone might take much more seriously and consider it a much bigger story. So you actually want people to, quote, unquote, "play" - right? - and give you a sense of what they think - or one story is more or less important than the other.
MONTANARO: Absolutely. Go on my Twitter feed - @DomenicoNPR - download the bracket there - it's pinned - submit it by noon today in that tweet thread. And I have promised a very special NPR prize. And David, I'm sorry to do this to you. I know it's the first time you're hearing this, but I promised them your voice on their answering machine. I hope that's OK with you.
GREENE: I don't think anyone wants that.
GREENE: But if they do, I'm more than happy to do it, so I will play along. NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks.
MONTANARO: Hey, you're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: OK, we're going to turn now to Afghanistan, where a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Afghan intelligence agency yesterday in Kabul.
KING: Yes, six people were killed, and ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. The militant group emerged two years ago in Afghanistan, and despite airstrikes by the U.S. military and by Afghan security, ISIS is still a relentless and deadly force in Afghanistan.
GREENE: And we're going to turn to NPR's Diaa Hadid, who is following this story from neighboring Pakistan. She's in Islamabad.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So how serious is this threat of ISIS in Afghanistan right now?
HADID: It's pretty serious, in part because people don't even know how many fighters there are in the country. Just today, a senior Afghan security official said there was probably around 2,000 fighters, but he was speaking in response to a Russian envoy who reportedly said there were 10,000 fighters in the country.
GREENE: Oh, whoa.
HADID: Yeah, so you can see that even internally, there's a very vocal debate about how many fighters there are. And the other thing is - is that they seem to be shifting around the country. They're most active and present near the Pakistan border, but now local news in Afghanistan is saying that they've also established themselves way up north near the Turkmenistan border. That's quite a distance from Pakistan.
GREENE: But even if they're based in these places, are they mostly targeting and attacking Kabul at this point?
HADID: Yeah. I mean, these are at least the attacks that are most heavily covered by local media in Afghanistan, and that's for a good reason. ISIS is attacking the seat of government, and it's attacking the place where its allies - you know, Western powers - have based themselves. And so what it's showing these two forces is that it can still strike at, you know, their beating heart, even though they're being attacked quite relentlessly by, you know, dozens, if not hundreds, of airstrikes at this point. And keep in mind, some of these attacks are brutal. Some ISIS attacks have killed more than 20, more than 30, even more than 50 people at once.
GREENE: Well, it - you say that geographically, they're targeting the seat of power and where, you know, Western diplomats are. But what do they want? I mean, what or who were they targeting and for what reason?
HADID: Right. So I'm just going to be the bad-news fairy. Like, it's even more worrying when we look at who they're targeting. They're targeting security forces and security installations in Afghanistan. And what they're trying to do there, it seems, is lower already-eroding morale among Afghan security forces. They have high casualty rates, low retention rates, and this is a further incentive to give up the fight against ISIS.
But the other group that they're targeting are Shiite civilians. ISIS has attacked their mosques around Afghanistan, and this risks further destabilizing Pakistan by triggering a sectarian conflict. And I was speaking to a local reporter in Afghanistan, Aziz Tasal (ph), and he was saying that he meets worshipers who are now afraid of going to Shiite mosques. And what that does is erodes people's, like, faith or even legitimacy in the government that's meant to protect them.
GREENE: It's almost like they feel like they will benefit from chaos if they can create as much of it as possible.
HADID: Indeed, indeed.
GREENE: NPR's Diaa Hadid speaking to us about the situation in Afghanistan from her base in Islamabad. Diaa, thanks. We appreciate it.
HADID: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: All right, we're going to focus now a bit on Iran. 2017 was sort of a mixed year for that country, and we're going to talk about what 2018 might bring.
KING: Yeah, President Hassan Rouhani won and won big re-election to a second term earlier this year, and that 2015 nuclear deal could still mean good things for Iran's economy. But Rouhani is dealing with hard-liners at home, and the Trump administration, of course, is calling for the world to get tougher on Iran.
GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon has covered many stories that have to do with Iran in 2017. He joins us from Istanbul.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: So you were actually there in Tehran for the presidential election in May that Noel mentioned, right?
GREENE: Rouhani easily defeated a hard-line cleric. What did it feel like?
KENYON: Well, I was there, and so was Steve Inskeep, and it was an exciting time for moderates and reformers in Iran. They rallied around Rouhani, even though he's not really one of them. He's more of a pragmatist. But their votes - these moderate and reform votes - helped Rouhani win a big victory. Hard-liners were embarrassed at the polls, really. And some analysts were saying, well, maybe now things will get better - more reform-minded power. But that really hasn't panned out so far. Hard-liners have started pushing back. They attack Rouhani every chance they get. And he's kind of been struggling. He hasn't really been able to get his No. 1 priority done, which is getting the economy moving again.
GREENE: Is that the call to prayer we're hearing behind you in Istanbul?
KENYON: It is, indeed.
GREENE: That's lovely. That sound will never get old to me. It's a beautiful moment.
KENYON: The joys of live radio.
GREENE: Yeah. So well, OK, back to Iran - Rouhani is - help me understand this. He is still pushing for economic deals and a better relationship with European countries and others. But then you have these threats from the Trump administration to derail the entire nuclear agreement that had lifted many of the international sanctions Iran that would've freed them up for - how does this all work?
KENYON: Well, the nuclear deal lives. That's the bottom line - in spite of the threats from Washington. President Trump declared Iran not in compliance, although the agency that's really in charge of that says, oh, yes, they are. But this hostile posture from Washington is giving some companies pause about whether it's really going to be OK to dive in and do business with Iran. And economists say at the street level, yeah, just a marginal impact so far. On the other hand, critics point to the Revolutionary Guard, which is a military force deeply embedded in the Iranian economy. They have been benefiting, and that's caused a lot of fears in the West. Some people want new talks now to curb Iran's missile program and other things. Iran really hasn't shown much interest in that.
GREENE: So as we look ahead to 2018, I mean, Washington has Iran at the top of its list of global threats. What - how does Iran respond, and what does Iran want?
KENYON: Well, what they would like is a lot more certainty than what they see right now. They know that Trump has promised a tougher policy. Allies aren't necessarily going along with it. Saudi Arabia has been much more aggressive in the region, and with the fight against ISIS winding down in Syria, I mean, this situation could get very complicated, indeed.
GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul talking to us about Iran and what we might expect in the new year. Peter, thanks.
KENYON: Thanks, David.
(SOUNDBITE OF TESK'S "THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.