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Rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran escalated over the Trump administration’s economic sanctions and Tehran’s threat of stepped-up uranium enrichment. This week, the U.S. sent aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf. Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the standoff.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Joining us now from Washington, D.C., for analysis of the growing tension between the U.S. and Iran is Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institute. Miss Maloney, why is all this happening?

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    I think we're seeing a period of intense signaling between the United States and Iran. This comes coinciding with the one-year anniversary of President Trump's decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal and with the decision to ramp up pressure on Iran with an effort to try to drive Iran's oil exports down to zero. There appears to be at least a very public effort to try to bolster the American troop presence.

    But I think in reality this is very much in line with our standard posture and really what's important is the public signaling that's going on rather than the military maneuvers.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In that signaling you kind of see an escalation of rhetoric between the two sides. Is our intelligence in the region very good? Are we pretty sure that these are the threats that we're hearing about and we're preparing for are legitimate?

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    Well, there are real concerns voiced by members of Congress and other groups in Washington about whether or not there is the possibility that the Trump administration is trying to hype the threat from Iran. I think realistically we know that Iran has been responsible for a number of attacks against American presence in the region over the years. At least 1,000 troops in Iraq have died as a result of Iranian-provided IEDs or Iranian assistance to Shia militias there.

    There's a long history of Iran's support to terrorist organizations across the region. And there was a real expectation that after the Trump administration walked away from the nuclear deal that in fact the Iranians might retaliate. So there is reason to be skeptical about what the Trump administration is putting out there in terms of the threat perception, but there's also reason to believe that the Iranians are prepared to make the United States pay a price for the pressure that Washington is exacting on Tehran at this time.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now does this posturing play to the regime's base? Because there's nothing that unifies people like a shared threat and seeing what you could be perceived as a bully or whatever. Look at these guys are standing right on our shores, we've got to come together as a country.

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    Well ,the conventional wisdom suggests that there will be a rally round the flag effect as a result of American pressure on Iran. But let's be realistic. Iranians have the capacity to resent both their own government and American policies toward that government that impact them directly in their pocketbooks.

    And I think what we're seeing at this time is not in fact the sort of movement toward the system on behalf of the population. We're seeing some consolidation of the political elite. But what we're really seeing I think is a period in which the Iranians have very few good options for parrying the American pressure that's been applied particularly through the economic sanctions.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And finally what happens? Does Iran walk away from the existing partners, all of European countries, that are still part of this nuclear deal?

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    The Iranians have been very careful in the way that they have tried to calibrate their response to American pressure. The Iranians recognize that there is very little they have to gain from blowing up the nuclear deal so to speak because it would only put them under greater pressure from Europe and others around the world who might be in a position to help support them. And it would eliminate or at least reduce the sense that they have something of a moral high ground, which of course is a rarity for the Iranians.

    So they've been moving very carefully. But it's not inconceivable that we're going to see ourselves on a slow road to a much more intense nuclear crisis with the Iranians even at the same time that we're dealing with something similar with the North Koreans.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Suzanne Maloney. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    Thank you.

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