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How will Iran respond to U.S. pressure and ramped up rhetoric?

For months, the Trump administration has targeted Iran with a campaign of pressure. Then overnight, President Trump took it a step further, threatening war, in response to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatening the U.S. in an address. Nick Schifrin reports on what could happen next.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States and Iran ramped up the tough rhetoric toward one another, raising the question, where is it all heading?

    "NewsHour" foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For months, the administration has targeted Iran with a campaign of pressure, from pulling out of the nuclear deal.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To reimposing sanctions to try and cripple Iran's finances.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Iran will be forced to make a choice, either fight to keep its economy off life support at home or keep squandering precious wealth on fights abroad.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, last night, President Trump took the campaign one step further and threatened war. He tweeted in all caps, "NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN, OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE."

    That was a response to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatening the U.S. in an address to Iranian diplomats.

  • Hassan Rouhani (through translator):

    We do not want to go into a war with them. But they must understand well that war with Iran is mother of all wars. They also have to understand it very well that peace with Iran is mother of all peace.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders called the president's tweet part of a consistent message.

  • Sarah Sanders:

    The president has been, I think, pretty strong since day one in his language towards Iran.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That language has included demands for extensive, fundamental shifts in Iranian behavior. The U.S. wants Iran to permanently abandon its nuclear program, end its missile program, end support of proxy groups such as Hezbollah. And the U.S. castigates Iran's religious leaders as corrupt.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Judging by their vast wealth, they seem more concerned with riches than religion. These hypocritical holy men have devised all kinds of crooked schemes to become some of the wealthiest men on Earth, while their people suffer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived to a clapping crowd at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. He said the U.S. — quote — "supports" anti-government protesters who have called for the overthrow of the Iranian regime, just as senior U.S. officials have before they joined the administration.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    The proud Iranian people are not staying silent about their government's many abuses. And the United States under President Trump will not stay silent either.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Mike Pompeo:

    When the United States sees the shoots of liberty pushing up through rocky soil, we pledge our solidarity.

  • Reuel Marc Gerecht:

    More than at any time since, say, the early 1980s the regime is deeply worried about its internal politics, about its capacity to survive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Reuel Marc Gerecht is a former CIA officer and now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He says the pressure campaign is working. Companies that invested in Iran, such as European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, French oil company Total and French automaker Peugeot have all pulled out.

    Since late last year, the Iranian rial has lost half its value. And this year, Iranians have demonstrated against corruption and economic policies and demanded regime reform.

  • Reuel Marc Gerecht:

    Its Achilles' heel is the internal politics, that you have both weakness at the top, you have major divisions at the top, and it's obvious that a substantial number of people down below have had it with many aspects of the Islamic Republic.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Iranian protests are common, and there's no obvious protest leader.

    So the regime will survive, argues former State Department official and Brookings senior fellow Suzanne Maloney.

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    We know the Iranian people have real grievances about the policies that their government imposes upon them.

    What we don't yet see is the collapse of the capabilities of the current system, the capabilities to repress, the capabilities to muddle through and mitigate economic crises, the capabilities to skillfully manage the diplomatic environment that they're in.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that means Iran is expected to respond to U.S. pressure. It's threatened to disrupt oil shipments and use its proxies. And with both sides' rhetoric ramping up, that could increase the chances of conflict and could reduce the chances Iran changes its behavior.

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    They are pushing as quickly as possible and as robustly as possible to try to get to a position of a change in Iranian position. And I think that is unlikely to pay off in the short-term. Iran has been a 40-year problem for a reason. It's intractable, it's difficult, and, fundamentally, even the application of maximum pressure isn't going to bring about a short-term change.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, President Trump said he had no concerns about increasing tension with Iran, and Iran called his remarks psychological warfare.

    So, in the short-term, the Twitter diplomacy and the saber-rattling from both sides are expected to continue.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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