What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

U.S.-Iran tensions: a diplomatic quagmire for the Middle East

Iran is vowing revenge after U.S. airstrikes on Friday killed the country’s military leader Qassem Suleimani. Thousands of American troops are heading to the Middle East as tensions with Tehran escalate. Douglas Ollivant, former Director for Iraq at the National Security Council under the Bush and Obama administrations, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the diplomatic fallout.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For analysis and perspective on the U.S. strikes and Iran's reaction, we turn to Douglas Ollivant, former Director for Iraq at the National Security Council in the Bush and Obama administrations. He joins us now from Washington, D.C..

    So we're at some point expecting maybe a layout of the evidence, the smoking gun on what was the preemptive move that we did? What justified it? I mean, he's been around for a while. Why now?

  • Douglas Ollivant:

    I'm not expecting any evidence to be laid out. I suspect that this was largely just about what Qassem Soleimani has been doing forever. He is the the head of the organization that runs Iran's proxy network throughout the region, Hezbollah in Lebanon, most notably, but also assistance in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq. That's been his portfolio. And so we decided to put a dent in that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There seems to also be a semantic conversation about was this an assassination or not? Was this lawful? Was this legal? The United States decided to call this group a terrorist organization as far back as April 2019. Does that give us the right to do this?

    Because the Iranians are taking this to the U.N. and saying, hey, this is an assassination. It violates all kinds of rules. We feel slighted.

  • Douglas Ollivant:

    Well, in terms of domestic law, which I think is all we really need to worry about here, it seems to be perfectly legal. The IRGC Quds Force was designated as a terrorist organization by the executive branch about 18 months ago. Neither of the other two branches seem to have objected to that. So that's where it stands. And as a matter of U.S. domestic law, that's currently kosher.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Most Americans don't understand how integrated Iran's influence is in Iraq at the moment and that it's already compromised some of the U.S. military's ability to do what they want. Kind of break that down for us — how did Iran gain all this influence?

  • Douglas Ollivant:

    First, Iran's right next door. They're their neighbor. So it's much easier for them to be there. You know, Iran and Iraq, have been neighbors for thousands of years, are going to continue to do so. So their relationships are of a different flavor and than that of the United States with Iraq.

    That said, some of us think that we're in this escalatory period because their influence was starting to be pushed back, that the protests that have been going on — not to be confused with the protesters at the U.S. embassy, who were just disguised militiamen — but the protests that are really going on in downtown Baghdad, which are pro-democracy, pro-accountability, anti-corruption and largely anti-Iranian, had shifted the political winds in Baghdad enough that the Iranians were about to lose the ability to influence the selection of the prime minister.

    And we think that may be what started this whole escalatory cycle, starting with the killing of the U.S. contractor on the base near Kirkuk and then the tit-for-tat that followed from that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK, so the U.S. is sending more troops into the region. Where does this leave Iraq now who are trying this balancing act? They want to be nice to their neighbor of thousands of years, Tehran and also Washington.

  • Douglas Ollivant:

    Well, the troops are going forward to Kuwait. We don't know that any are actually going to go forward in Iraq. I think except for a few that are going to relieve the Marines at the U.S. embassy and have a slightly larger presence inside what is by diplomatic agreement, U.S. sovereign soil. So we should have a status quo.

    The thing to watch in the coming weeks is will there be political will in Iraq to reject the U.S. troop presence, the training mission, the anti-ISIS fight that has been there since they were invited back in the late summer of 2014? That is the indicator to watch.

    If we can get past this current hurdle, this current tension in U.S.-Iraqi relations and rebut, retain the U.S. troop presence, then I think we can hope to smooth out relations in the longer run. But if that goes away, if those troops are asked by the Iraqis to leave, then we're in a very different situation.

    So that's the indicator to watch most closely.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    If the U.S. has less influence in Iraq, doesn't that increase the amount of influence that Iran has?

  • Douglas ollivant:

    It's pretty much a zero sum game. There are other players. The Turks have influence. The Saudis have influence. But in general, it's a zero sum game between us and the Iranians. Our gain is their loss and vise versa.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Does Iran have to respond? You can't just let such a high profile leader be assassinated or killed without pushing back in some way to save face at the very least, right?

  • Douglas ollivant:

    One would think that for their own domestic political purposes, if nothing else, they're going to have to do some type of face saving measure.

    They've a long laundry list of what they might do. I mean, the most escalatory would be attacking U.S.. troops inside Iraq, we're prepared for that, but that would be escalatory. But they have options inside Syria. They could, in theory, launch rockets at Israel from Lebanon, they could use their cyber weapons, they could attack Saudi Aramco, they could put mines in the Gulf again. They've got a long laundry list of options.

    And we'll just see what they choose to do and whether that is seen by the United States as a routine face saving major that can be absorbed or whether that is in turn going to require another response.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Douglas Ollivant, partner in Manton International and former N.S.C director for Iraq. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Douglas ollivant:

    Thank you, Hari.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest