Latest: Iran Tensions NPR's Sarah McCammon speaks with Karim Sadjadpour, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about the latest developments with Iran.
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Latest: Iran Tensions

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Latest: Iran Tensions

Latest: Iran Tensions

Latest: Iran Tensions

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NPR's Sarah McCammon speaks with Karim Sadjadpour, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about the latest developments with Iran.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We're going to start the program looking at the latest in a string of confrontations with Iran. This morning, the U.K. warned Iran that it would face serious consequences for seizing a British-owned oil tanker yesterday. This comes in a week when the U.S. says it brought down an Iranian drone. We wanted to understand what these escalating tensions mean for U.S. relations with Iran, so we've brought in Karim Sadjadpour. He's a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. And he joins us now in the studio. Welcome.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Great to be here.

MCCAMMON: Let's start by looking at the latest development. As we mentioned, Iran seized a British-owned oil tanker yesterday. Why would Iran go after a British tanker when the U.K. is one of the countries still trying to find a way to keep the 2015 nuclear deal intact?

SADJADPOUR: It's a good question. Over the last six weeks, we've seen Iran really escalate its activities in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, threaten to restart its nuclear program. And essentially what Iran is trying to do is exact a cost on countries which are partnered with the United States or partnered to the nuclear deal to make it clear that there is going to be a cost for America's pressure campaign and sanctions campaign against Iran to get those countries to try to pressure the United States to moderate its approach towards Iran.

MCCAMMON: So this is a display of force by Iran, or is it more of an effort to restart negotiations with the U.S.?

SADJADPOUR: Well, just as the United States builds leverage against Iran with economic pressure and sanctions, Iran's only means of really building leverage against the United States is by threatening or conducting chaotic activities in the Middle East and, you know, hoping to spike the price of oil or potentially restarting their nuclear program. So I think it's clear that neither Donald Trump nor Iran's leadership really wants a war. But at the same time, I think Iran certainly feels like its back is against the wall.

It doesn't want to concede to American pressure because it fears that if it concedes under pressure, that's going to project weakness and invite even more pressure. And so for that reason, you've seen, rather than Iran capitulating or compromising, they've begun escalating. But I think the endgame for both sides is - there's really no alternative to coming back to the negotiating table.

MCCAMMON: And there has been a string of headlines from the region involving Iran in recent weeks. This incident with the British tanker, of course, comes right after the U.S. says it brought down an Iranian drone. Of course, Iran disputes that version of events. How connected are these events?

SADJADPOUR: They're all interconnected. And essentially, the Trump administration's policy toward Iran has been to subject Iran to significant economic pressure and sanctions in the hopes that either Iran will come to the negotiating table and capitulate over its nuclear program or - I think there's some folks in the Trump administration, like national security adviser John Bolton, who would like to see the implosion of the Iranian regime.

And what Iran has done in response - Iran's supreme leader has been ruling for 30 years, and he's become pretty adept at these escalatory cycles. And he's adept at waving both the white flag of diplomacy and the black flag of radicalism and escalation. So on one hand, he sent his chief diplomat - Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif - he was recently in New York City, and he met with a lot of Western journalists. And he was talking about Iran wanting to pursue dialogue and diplomacy.

And simultaneously, Ayatollah Khomeini will allow his Revolutionary Guard forces to do radical things in the region. And as we saw in the last couple days, that includes seizing a British tanker, which was in Omani waters, and bringing that over to Iranian waters.

MCCAMMON: You talk about those mixed signals from the Iranian leader who's been in place, of course, for a very long time. President Trump's policy on Iran and other things is often a little hard to pin down. And how does bringing President Trump into that mix - how does that sort of shape these dialogues going forward?

SADJADPOUR: I describe Donald Trump's Iran policy as having the strategic coherence of Jackson Pollock painting. You know, it's really all over the place. Because on one hand, he, himself - President Trump - has said consistently that he doesn't want war, he simply wants a pageant with Iran along the lines of what he's had with the North Koreans. His national security adviser, John Bolton, has been the most outspoken advocate of regime change and conflict with Iran over the last few decades. And in between them is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is trying to kind of reconcile these contradictory impulses.

Add to that mix that President Trump has recently said that Senator Rand Paul is authorized to speak on his behalf, and Rand Paul recently met with Iran's foreign minister. So the message out of Washington is total incoherence. And I think if you're the Iranians, you're not sure what to expect because the signals are so contradictory.

MCCAMMON: So given all of this unpredictability and instability, are there paths forward here?

SADJADPOUR: The reality is that this U.S.-Iran escalation hasn't really impacted the lives of ordinary Americans. It hasn't really impacted the American economy. On the other hand, Iran's economy is really in a terrible state. It's been in a downward spiral since Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and subjected Iran to new sanctions, which are essentially trying to choke off the lifeblood of Iran's economy - its oil exports.

So I think that Tehran really doesn't have any options to reverse its economic downward spiral absent some type of an accommodation with the United States. Now, I think that the Iranians hope that they may be able to wait out Trump - wait until November 2020 and hope that a Democrat is elected. You know, we see November 2020 as just around the corner.

For, you know, Iranians who are really being punished day in, day out by rampant inflation and brain-drain corruption, it's going to be very difficult for them to sustain this level of economic duress for another 16 months. And so I think the Iranians will eventually come back to the negotiating table. But in the meantime, they're building leverage by sowing chaos and potentially restarting their nuclear activities.

MCCAMMON: Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Thanks so much for joining us.

SADJADPOUR: Great to be here. Thank you.

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