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How Iranian military exercises, mass protests are connected to U.S. sanctions

While the United States keeps up its maximum pressure campaign on Iran, tensions are building within Iran as mass protests there continue to grow. Meanwhile, for the first time, Iran is engaged in joint naval exercises with both Russia and China simultaneously. Amna Nawaz talks to Rand Corporation’s Ariane Tabatabai about how these events are connected to U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear treaty.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the first time, Iran, Russia and China are engaged in joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman. They are taking place as the United States continues its maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

    The secretary of the U.S. Navy told Reuters that he was on alert for what he called — quote — "provocative actions."

    Against this backdrop, protests inside Iran are growing.

    To discuss how all these events are connected, I'm joined by Ariane M. Tabatabai. She's a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and co-author of "Triple-Axis: Iran's Relations With Russia and China."

    Ariane, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Ariane M. Tabatabai:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we should point out Iran has done drills before individually with Russia and with China.

    This is the first time all three countries are working together. Why are we seeing these now?

  • Ariane M. Tabatabai:

    Well, there are a number of reasons.

    From Iran's perspective, as you mentioned in the beginning, the United States has been imposing this maximum pressure campaign, a policy that is centered around sanctions and trying to isolate Iran.

    So, what Iran is trying to achieve here is to signal to the United States that it can't be isolated. Iranian officials have said as much today as the drill has started.

    They have tried to say, listen, we have the backing of Russia and China, two superpowers, and so we can't be isolated.

    For both Russia and China, it's also a way to flex muscle, to show to the U.S. and the international community that they are key players in the region.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we should mention too the secretary of the Navy also said that, as Iran creates what he calls mischief here, that, sometimes, the U.S. has to react. They have already sent 14,000 additional troops to the region to deter Iran.

    He said they could send another aircraft carrier over, if they needed to. How much of that, trying to provoke action from the U.S., is Iran's motivation?

  • Ariane M. Tabatabai:

    Iran is trying to raise the cost of the maximum pressure campaign for the United States.

    The United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018. And for a year, Iran didn't really do anything. It just sort of sat and waited and negotiated with the Europeans to try to offset the cost of the maximum pressure campaign.

    Now, what it's trying to do and what it has been doing since May of this year is to actually show that it too can take action to poke the United States in the eye, and that whatever action the U.S. takes won't go without a response from Iran.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But the statements we have seen publicly from Iran vs. the ones we have seen from Russia and China, there's a little bit of daylight there in how this is being presented.

    Tell me about that.

  • Ariane M. Tabatabai:

    Absolutely.

    It's really interesting, actually, observing both Russia and China trying to downplay what's going on there. They're obviously trying to, again, project power to show that they're a force to be reckoned with in the region.

    But, at the same time, they're trying to reassure Iranian rivals, Saudi Arabia, Israel, that they're not there to take sides, that they're not there to kind of go against Israeli or Saudi interests. And, also, they're trying to make sure that the United States doesn't see this as an offensive action.

    Meanwhile, Iran is playing it up as trying to say that, look, we have these powers that are backing us, and we're not isolated, as the U.S. claims we are.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, from Iran's perspective, how much of this is actually about building alliances, and how much of it is building leverage against the U.S.?

  • Ariane M. Tabatabai:

    It's a bit of both, though I would be careful with the word alliance, because they don't see their relationship with either Russia or China as an alliance. They see it as a partnership.

    And they want to keep it that way, as do Moscow and Beijing. So what the Iranians are trying to do is both build leverage and also show to the United States that its actions won't go without a response, while, at the same time, making sure that they have these partnerships with other key powers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, all of this, we should note, is unfolding against the backdrop of protests back home inside of Iran, the biggest since the 1979 revolution, right?

    Is there a connection between what the regime is facing at home and the way it's acting overseas?

  • Ariane M. Tabatabai:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, at the core of all of this is the maximum pressure campaign and sanctions really hurting Iranians and the regime as well. So part of what the regime is trying to achieve is to build leverage against the U.S., to raise the cost of the maximum pressure campaign.

    And, at home, it has to respond to a growing dissent by the population that is just upset with the way things are going, economic mismanagement, corruption, all of it exacerbated by the U.S. sanctions.

    So, Iran is really — the regime is finding itself a little bit cornered at home and abroad. And it's responding to both of those things.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, tell me about that response, because, obviously, they faced similarly large-scale protests back in 2009.

    What are you seeing today that's different or the same to the way they responded back then?

  • Ariane M. Tabatabai:

    So, the protests, as far as we know, are not necessarily bigger than what we had seen in 2009.

    It's hard to estimate. It seems like it's much more widely distributed across the country now than it was in 2009. But the response has been drastically different. In 2009, it took several months to get to several hundred casualties, whereas, this time around, in November, when the protests started, in the course of 72 hours, Iran shut down the Internet and proceeded to kill several hundred people.

    Now, estimates are different. But, nonetheless, we got to a higher level of casualties fairly quickly. And the fact that they shut down the Internet completely is also new. That's not something Iran had achieved in the past. And now it seems like it's going to be a part of their way to deal with dissent at home.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Why do you think the response is so different? Ten years later, why are they reacting so differently now?

  • Ariane M. Tabatabai:

    Well, I think part of it is that they do see themselves as cornered.

    They see sanctions as part of — not just as, you know, sort of a different policy. They see it as warfare, that they, in fact, talk about sanctions as economic terrorism or war by other means, by economic means.

    So, they see themselves cornered. They see themselves isolated. And they're really concerned about the prospect of the United States helping bring about regime change at home.

    And so I think that's part of what's going on here, is that the concerns, the threat perception has led them to take this drastic action in a way that we hadn't seen in the past.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's fascinating. We will have to stay on top of it.

    Ariane Tabatabai of the RAND Corporation, thank you so much for being here.

  • Ariane M. Tabatabai:

    Thanks for having me.

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