Aggressive Rhetoric Ramps Up Between U.S. And Iran NPR's Rachel Martin discusses the reasons for the rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran with NPR's Greg Myre and Ariane Tabatabai, who focuses on the Middle East at the RAND Corporation.

Aggressive Rhetoric Ramps Up Between U.S. And Iran

Aggressive Rhetoric Ramps Up Between U.S. And Iran

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NPR's Rachel Martin discusses the reasons for the rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran with NPR's Greg Myre and Ariane Tabatabai, who focuses on the Middle East at the RAND Corporation.


How significant a threat is Iran to the United States? And how is the Trump administration planning to counter it? Yesterday, President Trump denied a report that his administration has updated plans to deploy tens of thousands of U.S. troops to respond to Iran, if needed. In the same breath, the president said this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now, would I do that? Absolutely, but we have not planned for that. Hopefully, we're not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we'd send a hell of a lot more troops than that.

MARTIN: So how exactly is the Trump administration and the Pentagon, for that matter, measuring the threat from Iran? To talk through this, I'm joined in studio by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So the Trump administration says threats from Iran are increasing. What's the evidence?

MYRE: Well, we've had these mysterious, small-scale attacks on some oil tankers in the Gulf in the past few days and another small-scale drone attack on some oil facilities, so that's part of it. The Pentagon is very worked up about this. They're clearly taking it very seriously. However, they're not explaining the exact nature of the threat. There's Iranian militias in the region. The Iranian Navy is in the Gulf. We don't know exactly what kind of attack they might be talking about. And the sanctions - the U.S. oil sanctions that went into effect this month - very, very serious for Iran. So I think that's Iran's concern.

MARTIN: But some very close American allies have a different perspective on the Iranian threat, right?

MYRE: We really saw this yesterday. The British major general - the number two in the coalition in Iraq said he wasn't seeing any increased activity by these Iranian militias in Iraq. Couple hours later, a statement comes out of central command in Tampa, saying, no, no, no. There are credible threats - so this very public rebuke of the British general. But the Europeans in general - diplomatically and this British general - didn't seem nearly as agitated as the Americans have been.

MARTIN: Also, this morning, Greg, the State Department ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees from Iraq - not talking about Iran here but Iraq - which, obviously, has historical and current connections to Iran. Do we know, though, if this order is connected to the tensions we're seeing between the U.S. and Iran?

MYRE: We don't know for sure. I mean, the State Department statement did not mention Iran by name but talks about the armed groups, militias, terror groups in Iraq. So we don't know exactly what they're thinking about. Now, of course, the question immediately leaps to mind, are they talking about these Iranian militias that are there that have - actually were fighting ISIS, as was the United States? But we don't know. We're having to guess here because it's not being spelled out.

MARTIN: OK, NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. I want to bring in another voice to the conversation - Ariane Tabatabai. She's an associate political scientist with a focus on the Middle East at the RAND Corporation. And she is in studio.

Thank you for coming in.

ARIANE TABATABAI: Good morning, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Is interpretation a concern here? - how Iran is interpreting what the U.S. is doing and vice versa.

TABATABAI: Well, I think both sides have indicated in various statements that they really do not want to end up in a war, the trouble, of course, being that you have different entities, different figures, different people and - on each side who have their own agendas and their own thinking about the issue. And so you've had contradicting signals, conflicting signals coming out of the two countries. And you have a lot of tension in both Tehran and Washington about what to do next. What's the best approach going forward?

MARTIN: We heard Greg make mention of Iranian militias that have operated in Iraq for years. We hear the Trump administration talking about the threat posed to the U.S. by Iranian proxies. I mean, can you explain exactly what those are - why the Pentagon is so worried about them?

TABATABAI: Yeah. To be clear, as Greg mentioned, these are not Iranian forces in Iraq. They're actually Iraqi forces that have been backed by Iran for a number of years, some of them going back all the way to the 1980s and even before that. So the Iranians have been building these relationships for decades now in Iraq. And it's all come to a head in the past between the United States and Iran, where, when U.S. forces were deployed in Iraq in the mid-2000s, some Iranian-backed militias were targeting U.S. forces. We know at least of some instances in which U.S. troops and personnel have been killed by these militias. Now, since 2014, when ISIS became the key challenge in Iraq, the U.S. and Iran had largely been on the same side, not officially but they were both very concerned about ISIS. They were both undertaking activities against ISIS. Now, with the ISIS threat drawing down a little bit, with both countries kind of focusing on each other as opposed to a common threat, we're potentially back to where we were in the mid to late 2000s, where they're really competing in Iraq. And Iranian-backed militias may be looking to target U.S. forces.

MARTIN: What do you make of this announcement by the State Department this morning - evacuating all non-emergency U.S. government employees from Iraq?

TABATABAI: What's concerning at the same time, I think, that we sort of saw this coming, last month, President Trump announced that he was designating the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is a branch of the Iranian military, as a terrorist - as a foreign terrorist organization. And the Iranians essentially reciprocated by saying, we are also going to designate U.S. forces in the CENTCOM region in the Middle East as terrorists. And that was essentially a green light for their forces and the militias that they back in Iraq to begin to look at U.S. forces and U.S. personnel more broadly as possible targets.

MARTIN: How is all of this - the ratcheting up of tensions - how is this going to affect Iran's posture when it comes to its nuclear program? Are they just going to dig in?

TABATABAI: Well, they announced last week - President Rouhani announced that his country was going to start taking some steps that were not fully in compliance with the nuclear deal and - he gave the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese - the remaining parties to the nuclear deal - 60 days to give Iran some economic benefits or they would ramp up some of their nuclear activities again.

MARTIN: Ariane Tabatabai of the RAND Corporation, thank you for your time.

TABATABAI: Thanks for having me.

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