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The tense U.S.-Iran relationship, 40 years after the Islamic Revolution

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to establish an Islamic republic and toppled the U.S.-backed regime of the Shah. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the history of U.S.-Iran relations, Iran’s economy, and what’s next.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile, toppling the Shah of Iran's regime and changing the government from a monarchy to an Islamic Republic. The consequences of that event continue to reverberate in U.S. policy and regional and international politics today. Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution joins us now from Washington D.C. One of the concerns that people have right now in modern day relations between America and Iran. Are we closer to war now than we have been with them in these 40 years?

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    I think we're in a more unpredictable period than we have been in many years. There has been an estrangement between Washington and Tehran since November of 1979 when Iranian students overtook the American embassy and created a crisis which resulted in a 444 day stand off when American diplomats were held hostage. That animosity has waxed and waned over the years. It appeared to be in a period of real transformation during the Obama administration a sense that the nuclear negotiations and the agreement that was produced in 2015 might in fact lead to a new opening between the two countries. Instead what we've seen is an increase in tensions as President Donald Trump has walked away from the nuclear deal. The American policy is really one of maximum pressure toward Tehran with no obvious endpoint. And the Iranians don't have a clear approach to managing that pressure.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know I'm looking at an op ed that John Bolton wrote back in 2015 in the New York Times to stop Iran's bomb bomb Iran. How concerned should we be about the idea that the way to deal with Iran might be through force because that's the advice the president gets?

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    Well ironically one of the more moderating influences within the current administration as the president himself who seems deeply averse to any further American entanglements in military conflicts in the Middle East to the point that he's actually moved to withdraw American forces from Syria as well as most likely Afghanistan two conflicts in which the Iranians are both deeply enmeshed in that sense I think it's highly unlikely the president himself would authorize a war with Iran. Unfortunately though one can't necessarily control the inadvertent consequences of the approach that he has endorsed of applying pressure to Iran when the Iranians reach a breaking point. It's entirely possible that we will find ourselves pulled into a conflict that neither side in fact desired.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Has it been worth it to walk away from the deal? Is Iran close to a nuclear weapon now have we created a strong enough deterrable we can walk away?

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    I think the decision to walk away from the deal by the Trump administration was a critical mistake. The president by suggesting that he might in fact jettison the agreement had an opportunity to apply some of that leverage to get some additional pressure on a range of other concerns about Iranian behavior across the region. Instead he chose to walk away from the deal and that has left us in a weaker position. It's created this opportunity I think for the Iranians to themselves have the upper hand really what happens next is going to be decided by Tehran. In my view the most likely outcome from an extended crisis with Iran is one in which they seek to disrupt oil exports or production coming from some of their neighbors around the region because anything that drives up oil prices will help them in terms of their own bottom line at a time of severe economic sanctions and it would hurt the president's political capital in terms of continuing to apply those sanctions or the economic sanctions that we have put on them working.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are the economic sanctions that we have put on them working. [00:03:51][3.2] [00:03:52] I mean there are articles here about Iran facing the worst economic challenge in 40 years according to the president of the country the real has devalued by 70 percent inflation there is passed 30 percent. Is it working? Is the pressure working?

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    The pressure is working. If your metric is simply one of economic impact the Iranians are really facing hard times at the moment. And it comes at a time of some political crisis for Tehran as the political establishment begins to look toward what comes next and perhaps who comes next in terms of succession for the supreme leader. The sanctions are not working in terms of actually creating any restraint on Iran's approach to the region. And I think this is where the Trump administration's policy has really fallen flat. There is no evidence in fact historically that economic pressure causes Iran to retrench from its activities and destabilizing actions abroad. And in fact many of its policies are fairly low cost and even in some to some extent low risk for the regime to continue to undertake. Really what we have done is to remove some of our ability to influence Iran's decisions around the region. And critically eliminate our capacity to engage diplomatically with the Iranians.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institute thanks so much for joining us.

  • Suzanne Maloney:

    Thank you.

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