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After apparent attacks on oil tankers, what’s next for the U.S. and Iran

After two oil tankers near the strategically critical Strait of Hormuz were damaged Thursday, the U.S. said Iran was responsible. The UN, meanwhile, has called for an independent investigation. Judy Woodruff talks to Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar and former State Department official, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operations officer in the Middle East, about this precarious situation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The suspected attacks yesterday on two oil tankers near the strategically vital Straits of Hormuz ratcheted already high tensions between the U.S. and Iran to a new level.

    And global reaction has varied in markedly different ways. The United Nations secretary-general called for an independent investigation. President Trump says the U.S. knows Iran was responsible. Nonetheless, today, he expressed interest in talks with Tehran.

    Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the attacks, one of which hit a Japanese-operated tanker while Abe was in Tehran. And Iran's President Hassan Rouhani accused the U.S. of radicalizing the situation in the region and pursuing an aggressive policy against the Islamic Republic.

    At the Pentagon today, Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan had this to say:

  • Patrick Shanahan:

    We have an international situation there in the Middle East. It's not a U.S. situation. And the focus for myself and Ambassador Bolton and Secretary Pompeo is to build international consensus to this international problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We take a closer look at what is at stake and how Iran might respond with Reuel Marc Gerecht. He was a CIA operations officer in the Middle East in the 1980s and '90s. He is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

    And Vali Nasr, he is a Middle East scholar who served in the Obama administration's State Department. He is now the dean of the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, although soon he will step down from that job in order to advise Democratic presidential candidates.

    And we welcome both of you back to the "NewsHour."

    So, my first question to both of you is, do you accept the Trump administration insistence that this was Iran that was behind these attacks?

    Vali Nasr?

  • Vali Nasr:

    I think, more than likely, yes, although we have the see the final proof, and the administration will do well to provide the irrefutable proof.

    But I think, more than likely, Iran did it. It happened in a way that provides them with plausible deniability. And now there actually is a very interesting situation, where the debate is about whether they did it, rather than about what are the ramifications and what signal they were trying to send.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you believe the administration is correct in saying it was Iran?

  • Reuel Marc Gerecht:

    Yes, I don't think there is any plausible candidate besides Iran.

    The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' naval units have a long history of training and using mines in the Persian Gulf, so I think it's pretty conclusive.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, why are they doing this? Why did they do it?

  • Reuel Marc Gerecht:

    Well, I think there are a few reasons.

    I think, most importantly, they're trying to spook the Europeans, the Japanese and others. They're trying to send a signal to put pressure on the Americans to sort of back off.

    I think they also enjoy it. I mean, I think there's a certain fillip of revolutionary pride here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Enjoy it?

  • Reuel Marc Gerecht:

    Yes.

    I think they have they have been under tremendous sanctions pressure. And they wanted a means to strike back. They can't strike back directly against the Americans, because they know that would be, I think, suicidal. So they go after others. They go after peripheral targets.

    And I think it gives them considerable satisfaction, as well as, they hope, achieving a strategic goal of getting everybody worried that chaos might break out, war might break out, and the Americans will be put in a tight spot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Vali Nasr, what do you see as the motive here?

  • Vali Nasr:

    Well, I think Iran is — wants to show that it's defiant, that the maximum pressure strategy of President Trump has not worked, and that they are also capable of resisting the United States and also escalating costs.

    And, in particular, if this president doesn't want to go to war, Iran acting rashly, threatening escalation could essentially turn the tables on the president.

    But I also think that Iran cannot go to the table with the United States looking like it's surrendering, like it's capitulating. So given that Prime Minister Abe was in Tehran, everybody was expecting that he had carried messages from President Trump and may bring messages back.

    I think the Iranians wanted to send the message both to domestic audience and international audience, that, regardless of what Abe brought to them, they nevertheless are going to be defiant, that this is not going to be easy for the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Reuel Gerecht, does this bring Iran closer to what they want? Do these attacks do that?

  • Reuel Marc Gerecht:

    Well, it depends.

    I think it depends in part on whether — how the United States responds. I think it's — eventually, the United States is going to have to prohibit them from using mining operations in the Persian Gulf. I think the U.S. Navy is going to get quite cranky about this.

    If you recall, it was a mining attack — a mine attack in 1988 that led President Reagan to authorize the U.S. Navy to essentially destroy much of the Iranian navy. So I think the U.S. Navy is inclined to become much more aggressive, if the president authorizes it, to prevent this type of action.

    I agree with Vali. I think there is also a predicate being laid for possible negotiations, possible diplomacy. I think the regime is in a very tight spot, and they will perhaps try to find an out with the Trump administration. They may not wait until 2020 to see if the Democrats win.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, where do you see that going, Vali Nasr? Because, on the one hand, the administration has had this maximum pressure — the Trump administration — maximum pressure.

    But, on the other hand, you hear them saying, we would — the president saying, we would consider talking to them. How do you see that coming about, or not?

  • Vali Nasr:

    Well, I think, at one level, the purpose of maximum pressure is not clear.

    So there are elements in the administration who would want either regime change or for Iran to completely capitulate. And then the president in Tokyo said Iran can prosper under the existing regime, and what I really want is to talk to Iran.

    So I think the United States would do well if it had a clear strategy, and it would signal it properly. But I agree with Reuel that Iran is in a tight spot. They don't have an option of going to war with the United States. That would be the end of the Islamic Republic. They cannot suffer under these sanctions as is.

    And they ultimately may have to come to the table, but it's going a very delicate dance of how they get themselves to the table. And we saw some of this with Kim Jong-un on and North Korea, that beating their chests, being threatening essentially might be a sort of way to come to the table.

    And we shouldn't forget that the prime minister of Japan didn't go to Iran without at least having some indication that the Iranians would like to hear proposals from the United States. And it's quite possible that he's carrying back at least certain conditionalities and proposals from Iran.

    So the public messaging between the two sides may — as Reuel says, may be providing a sort of an umbrella or a cover for some kind of an engagement that might be forthcoming.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it's counterintuitive, but are we saying that the maximum pressure campaign, which may have caused Iran or pushed them into a corner, that made them want to do this, Reuel Gerecht, then may in turn lead to talks?

    Is that what we're — is that…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Reuel Marc Gerecht:

    Well, it's entirely possible.

    I mean, again, I think it depends what the Iranians do. They're creatures of habit. So since we haven't responded yet to their provocations — and I think, in retrospect, it was probably a mistake that we didn't respond to the attacks off the coast of Fujairah, where there were four ships damaged. If we'd been more bold then and said…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is what happened a few weeks ago.

  • Reuel Marc Gerecht:

    Right.

    If we'd been more bold and said, you do that again, we're going to unleash helicopter gunships on the Revolutionary Guard Corps navy, this might not have happened.

    So it depends whether they return to these tactics. I suspect they might, in which case the — I think the U.S. Navy will have to become more forceful. That could derail or delay the process for the regime, if it really is trying to find an avenue to have negotiations with President Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, very quickly, right now, we're still waiting to see a clear response from the Trump administration. Is that right?

  • Vali Nasr:

    Absolutely.

    And, also, we don't know exactly what Prime Minister Abe brought back and what he has relayed to the president. And I think Reuel is correct. I think both sides need to show a — show decisiveness, as they are perhaps trying to go to talks and gain leverage.

    But this is exactly why it's dangerous. It can get out of hand, and then one signal or one escalation may essentially lead to somewhere where neither country, I think, would want to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in the meantime, you had the acting defense secretary, Shanahan, saying — talking today about an international reaction.

    So, we will wait to see whether that comes together in some way.

    Reuel Marc Gerecht, Vali Nasr, we thank you.

  • Reuel Marc Gerecht:

    Thank you very much.

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