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U.S.-Iran tensions continue to rise after apparent attacks, military deployments

Over the past week, the difficult relationship between the U.S. and Iran has become even more strained. The Trump administration warned of severe consequences for any Iranian aggression, while Iran has threatened to exceed limits on its nuclear program. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia said rebels in Yemen believed to be backed by Iran staged an attack. Judy Woodruff talks to Nick Schifrin for more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This past week, the already difficult relationship between the U.S. and Iran has become even more tense. Administration officials have warned that they would respond with — quote — "unrelenting force" to any Iranian attack.

    Tehran has threatened to exceed caps on its nuclear program. And, today, Saudi Arabia says that rebels in Yemen who are believed to be backed by Iran staged a major attack.

    Our Nick Schifrin is here with an update.

    Hello, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Hi, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what do we know to be behind this attack today on a Saudi Arabian oil pipeline?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, the Saudis are accusing the Houthis, who, as you said, are believed to be backed by Iran and who are fighting Saudi Arabia inside of Yemen, of launching an armed drone against two Saudi pumping stations inside Saudi Arabia.

    And the Houthis did claim credit for this. And one Saudi official says, look, this is a game-changer. We have seen attacks by Houthis before, but we have never seen an attack with this level of precision, never flown so far from their bases in Yemen with an armed drone. And they have never hit state-owned oil targets with such success.

    That's according to a Saudi official. A former U.S. intelligence official with experience in Saudi Arabia says, well, let's take this with a grain of salt. The Houthis have used drones before. They have attacked oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. And they have flown this far into Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia just doesn't make those attacks public usually.

    But the fact is that this attack was close to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. It was by a group that even the U.N. says receives weapons or missile parts from Iran itself. And Iran has vowed to attack Saudi Arabia.

    So that's why we're getting a lot of concern from both Saudi and U.S. officials today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, now, this was the second attack in just a few days. There was the attack on Sunday on an oil tanker.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right, so attack on four oil tankers on Sunday morning, three of them against Iranian enemies, against Saudi Arabia and Emirati tankers.

    Now, we don't know a lot about this attack. But we do know that, according to U.S. and Saudi officials, it was relatively sophisticated. And the U.S. officials I'm talking to say they believe, they believe that Iran or its proxies were behind not only that attack against the tankers, but also this drone attack in Saudi Arabia.

    But, Judy, I will say, they will not give me that proof. So either they don't have any or they just simply won't share it yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I know you're talking to a lot of people. What do the ones who follow Iran say about why Iran would be doing this right now, if they're doing it?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right. We don't know that they're doing it. And Iran does deny that they're doing it.

    But I have talked to a lot of people. And they say Iran is facing a lot of external pressure. The external pressure is mostly from the U.S., both the rhetoric, the military moves, and, of course, the sanctions.

    There's a lot of internal pressure as well. The economy is doing very poorly. The Iran nuclear deal had in mind the idea that Iran would benefit economically. Iran has not received those benefits. The economy's doing poorly.

    And so what these officials I talked to say, this is a way to resist all of that external U.S. pressure and also a way to relieve some of the internal pressure, to perhaps rally around the flag a little bit.

    And one U.S. official I talked to put it this way. This is Iran ratcheted up its resistance, but in a way that allows them plausible deniability — we're generally talking about proxies here — and in a way that doesn't create a direct conflict with the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, at this point, no sign that the U.S. is relenting, pulling back on this pressure campaign against Iran?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Quite the opposite, that they're increasing the pressure campaign.

    Over the last week-and-a-half, we have seen the deployments of U.S. military assets, U.S. Abraham Lincoln carrier group — you see it right there — four B-52 bombers that accompanied that carrier group, an amphibious warship, in addition to what you're looking at there, and Patriot missile batteries on the way.

    Now, these are assets that have been in the Middle East in the past. The U.S., of course, has been fighting wars in the Middle East, much less so today. But so these assets have been there in the past. So this is not a huge ratcheting up deployment by the U.S. But, obviously, it's sending a message to around to Iran. White House officials say it's a message of deterrence.

    Also sending a message to Iran, a New York Times article today that said 120,000 troops would be considered sent by the United States to the region if there's any kind of Iranian attack.

    So first, let's listen to what President Trump had to say when he was asked about that article this morning.

  • Donald Trump:

    I think it's fake news. OK?

    Now, what I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully, we're not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we'd send a hell of a lot more troops than that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So the U.S. officials who I do talk to you say that meeting did happen, this discussion did take place.

    But 120,000 troops is one of many contingencies that the U.S. could use, depending on what happens, and that they have made absolutely no decisions yet.

    But it's clear, as we said, that the U.S. is trying to make Iran feel the heat right now. And defense officials tell me there is an increased threat against U.S. troops in Iraq and in the region.

    Now, I will say this. I talked to a senior Democratic congressional official this evening, who told me that the administration is — quote — "inflating the threat." So there are some divisions and there are some questions about this intelligence and about the threat that the U.S. is describing.

    But, Judy, the bottom line is, there is a cycle of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran right now. And it appears to be getting worse.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But we need to continue asking questions, which I know you are doing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we will continue to do so.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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