RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Since the Trump administration announced a maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, Iran has responded by attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. It also announced it will exceed the amount of low-enriched uranium it was allowed to produce under the Iran nuclear deal. And overnight, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards shot down a U.S. drone. Let's turn now to Aaron David Miller. He worked for the State Department under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Thanks so much for being with us.
AARON DAVID MILLER: Always a pleasure, Rachel.
MARTIN: Aaron, how do you read this moment?
MILLER: You know...
MARTIN: I mean, how - go ahead.
MILLER: In Middle East wars, really - and confrontations really don't happen by accident. They're preceded by a period of tension, sometimes prolonged tensions, I guess in which both sides can act willfully, sometimes recklessly. And you can ascend the escalatory ladder very quickly and trip into a full-fledged confrontation. And I fear - because I don't see the political space right now to preempt it - that we're in one of those periods now.
MARTIN: We heard Senator Tim Kaine earlier on the show say that Iran, the actions that we're seeing, this is all in response to the Trump administration's so-called pressure campaign on Iran that they launched after the U.S. pulled out of the nuclear deal. Do you think that's what is provoking Iran right now?
MILLER: Look, I mean, I think there's merit to that argument in the sense that the Trump administration's campaign of maximum pressure has worked only too well. I'm not sure the administration, since it had no plan B, no strategy other than maximum pressure, had a plan B in order to cope with the reality that the Iranians under tremendous pressure and pain would not allow the status quo to continue and they had a number of asymmetrical steps that they could take against shipping in the Gulf.
Now you see a willful attack against an American surveillance drone. And the Iranians have a vote, too. And the question now is, short of escalation - and I suspect the administration will have to find a way to respond - is there an alternative to deal with this? Otherwise, we're heading for a serious and sustained confrontation.
MARTIN: But it sounds like you're saying that the U.S. should respond, that they can't let this go?
MILLER: I mean, look. I'm reporting here. I'm not moralizing or editorializing. I think of all the plausible military conflicts the U.S. could get involved in, a war with Iran is both unnecessary, gratuitous, counterproductive and exceedingly dangerous. But the administration's now staked out ground. They talk about deterrence, and they've deployed military assets in order to buck up deterrence. Now you have a willful challenge on the part of the Iranians. The president has said he'd be willing to go to war with Iran to preempt a nuclear weapon. Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, said the other day that if one American is killed, there will be a kinetic response.
So the question is - no Americans have been killed. Just a surveillance drone. The Iranians tried last week in the wake of the tanker episodes to down a drone. They missed - how does the administration respond? I think they've got to find a way, and a carefully calibrated way, first to make the case, as they've tried to do with the attacks on the tankers.
It's not a preferred option, on my part. De-confliction would be. A hotline would be. Engaging the Iranians, talking to them rather than about them, seems to be the rational, logical approach. But then again, administrations have political problems, and they usually entrap themselves by unwise rhetoric and actions. And I think that's where we are now.
MARTIN: We spoke with Brian Hook, the State Department's top adviser on Iran, earlier this week. And he said that he is in the Gulf this week. He is traveling to meet with regional American allies about the perceived threat from Iran. How might the interests of, say, Saudi Arabia affect a U.S. response?
MILLER: Well, I think that from the beginning, the Trump administration - the Saudis have made the case, and the Trump administration, in my judgment, has listened all too uncritically to the Saudi perception - and you could put the Israelis, in some respects, in the same box here - that Iran represents the greatest threat to Western civilization, and that somehow the Trump administration has to find a way to counter it. At the same time, I think this president, perhaps one of the most redemptive aspects of his policy is the fact that he's been incredibly risk averse. In some respects, as risk averse as his predecessor. That, I think, we have going for us. But I think the pressures to respond, I think, will grow.
MARTIN: Aaron David Miller. He worked on Middle East policy for both President Clinton and President George W. Bush. Thank you for your time and analysis. We appreciate it.
MILLER: Thank you, Rachel.
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