What signal is Iran sending with recent missile tests?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The prospects for a thaw in relations between the U.S. and Iran that some thought possible after the nuclear deal were again set back this week, after several flash points that showed the fundamental disagreements that remain.

The landmark nuclear accord signed in July between Iran and six world powers led by the United States is soon due to be implemented fully. Just this week, most of Iran's stockpiles of low-enriched uranium were removed from the country by ship.

But there are renewed tensions between Iran and the U.S. that could affect the nuclear accord. Recent ballistic missile tests by Iran were said by the United Nations to violate prohibitions on missile testing. The Obama administration then drew up additional sanctions on Iran's missile program.

But, last night, The Wall Street Journal reported the White House had delayed those sanctions for now. Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, said yesterday his nation wouldn't only continue its missile development, but expand it.

And just last weekend, Iranian boats within the very tight quarters of the Straits of Hormuz, the gateway to the Persian Gulf, fired a rocket near the U.S. aircraft carrier Harry Truman, a move the U.S. called highly provocative. The carrier and its battle group, and a French naval vessel, were sailing into the Gulf to continue the bombardment of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

As we begin the new year, where do things stand between the U.S. and Iran?

For that we turn to Karim Sadjadpour. He's senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Welcome back to the program.

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is going on with Iran? What's behind these missile tests, what appears to be provocative firing very close to a U.S. ship?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Judy, when we describe Iran's political factions, we commonly use the term moderates and hard-liners.

Perhaps a more appropriate term would be to call them — you have the bridge-builders, people like President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, that want to build bridges with the West, with the United States, and you have the saboteurs, those who are very concerned about the prospect of a more integrated Iran.

Within the Revolutionary Guards, you have a lot of saboteurs, people who don't have much in terms of their popular support, but they have a lot in terms of coercive power. And I think that the missile tests, the imprisonment of dual nationals are all meant as a signal to the United States that the nuclear deal is not about a broader rapprochement, the relations are going to remain antagonistic, and to Iran's own population to send the signal, don't think the nuclear compromise was a sign of weakness. We remain strong and in control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Were these tests, Karim, legal, though, under the terms of the nuclear deal?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: The missile tests weren't a violation of the nuclear deal, but they were a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

And I think this is the dilemma that the Obama administration is in. Now, on one hand, the nuclear deal with Iran could be the crowning foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. They don't want to pursue sanctions if it is going to undermine the nuclear deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What role did the discussion in Washington, in the White House, the reporting that the White House might be prepared to propose sanctions in response, what role does that play in all of this?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I think people in Tehran certainly probably recognize the dilemma the Obama administration has.

They don't want to do anything to sabotage the nuclear deal. They don't want to do anything which could potentially weaken these bridge-builders I was talking about in Tehran. At the same time, they want to react to Iran's provocations.

So, I think that, internally in the White House, there is probably debate between folks at Treasury, at the Pentagon and those who are at the White House and State Department.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you see — of course, you had a number of Republicans — as soon as Iran did this missile testing and the other tests, there were comments from Republicans saying, see, in essence, we told you so, we can't trust Iran.

That clearly puts pressure on the White House. And so how do the Iranians read that?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I think, Judy, there is not only going to be pressure from Republicans, but also many Democrats who supported the Obama administration.

And I think that — you know, what I always tell people, that this nuclear deal is going to take — it has to be judged over the course of years, not months. It's not going to bring about a rapprochement between the United States and Iran anytime soon.

And we're going to have to — it's a 10-year agreement. And we're going to have to assess it in the months to — in years to come, but it's going to be a very perilous deal. And there's many saboteurs in Washington and Tehran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it possible it could become derailed if this kind of activity continues?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Absolutely.

I think that there are so many moving parts to this deal. And then you look at the places in the Middle East in which the United States and Iran are in potential zones of conflict, whether that's Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian issue. So, there's lots of traps here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, very complex.

Finally, Karim, a number of — there has been reporting about a number of Iranian-Americans imprisoned in Iran. It's an additional irritant in the relationship. Does that play a role in all this, or is that just side activity as far as the Iranians are concerned?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I don't think it's affected the Obama administration's position toward Iran, but, certainly, it sours the mood in the United States, when, after this nuclear deal, Iran goes and imprisons innocent Iranian-Americans, including my friend Siamak Namazi.

I think it sends a signal to diaspora Iranians around the world that, don't think that Iran is welcome and open to business to all of you. This remains a close state ruled by the Revolutionary Guards and the supreme leader.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that is my final question. Should Americans understand that the hard-liners are in charge in Iran or those who seek to be bridge-builders?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think a wonderful quote that captures today's Middle East is from the poem, a poem from Yeats, who said, the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

And I think, unfortunately, within Iran, the hard-liners are very much a minority, but they continue to have a bulk of political and coercive power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it's, as you said, complicated and one that Americans are keeping a close watch on.

Karim Sadjadpour, we thank you.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Judy.