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Where U.S.-Iran Relations Stand After Airstrikes And Embassy Security Breach

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today Iran or Iran-backed militias may be planning more strikes on U.S. interests in the Middle East. And he says the U.S. is prepared to strike back. This last week has seen an American contractor killed in Iraq, U.S. airstrikes on the Iran-backed militia blamed for that attack and then supporters of the militia breaching security at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, which gives you some sense of just how tense the U.S.-Iran relationship is.

Ariane Tabatabai is a political scientist with the Rand Corporation. She told me neither the U.S. nor Iran wants a direct confrontation.

ARIANE TABATABAI: Neither side wants a war. The challenge, though, is that there is such a high risk for miscalculation right now, for something to go wrong. And you know, we just saw the first U.S. fatality of this tension. And my concern is that we will see more of the same type of activities, potentially more fatalities over the next year.

KELLY: If both the U.S. and Iran want to protect their interests, and if, as you say, neither side wants a war, let's talk about what off-ramps might look like. And start with the U.S. What does the U.S. way out of this situation look like?

TABATABAI: Well, the administration is implementing this policy of maximum pressure that it started a couple of years ago after withdrawing from the nuclear deal. The trouble, I think, here is that for proponents of the maximum-pressure campaign, if you actually introduce off-ramps, you will remove the maximum from maximum pressure. And so the likelihood of the administration looking for off-ramps at this very challenging moment are fairly low. So there is not a whole lot of room for negotiations outside of possible, kind of complete capitulation by Iran in the way the administration has laid out its policy.

KELLY: We have a little bit of tape here from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He was speaking earlier this week in an interview on Fox. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: We put real pressure on the Islamic Republic Iran. We will continue to do so. And as you saw the president say today, we will continue to hold the Islamic Republic of Iran accountable wherever we find their malign activity, and we'll make sure we have the resources to do so.

KELLY: I suppose the question, Ariane Tabatabai, is, what else was the U.S. supposed to do? An American was killed. It wasn't as though the U.S. was not going to respond in some form.

TABATABAI: I think that's exactly right. You know, I think a U.S. response was essentially a matter of time, given all of the Iranian provocations of the past few months. The challenge is, how did we get here? We got here because of the maximum-pressure campaign. You know, Secretary Pompeo laid out 12 points in 2018, saying that he would like to see a change in behavior - in Iranian behavior on 12 different areas. And what we are seeing today is not Iran changing its behavior on those items, but rather, doubling down on a number of those challenging issues.

KELLY: So that brings us up to this moment. Here we are at the start of a new year. How do events of just the last several days in Iraq, where we've seen these tensions between the U.S. and Iran, playing out? How does that change the overall relationship? How does it change the calculations on the sides of both Tehran and Washington?

TABATABAI: Well, you know, I think that what Iran is doing is trying to see what happens in November 2020, but also to continue to try to raise the cost of the maximum-pressure campaign. So I anticipate over the next few months, we will continue to see more of the same with some variation. Iran has been pretty consistent in making sure that, you know, it keeps us on our toes, that it's not always doing the same thing over and over again.

You know, the United States and Iran are now effectively competing for influence in Iraq. And that may sound like, you know, it's always been like that, but it wasn't, actually. In 2014, when ISIS began to take over large swaths of territory, the two sides were not necessarily cooperating officially. Iran was not part of the U.S.-led coalition, but the two sides were fighting the same adversary. Today, that's not the case anymore. So they're both focused on each other. And Iraq is just one of the theaters in which this competition is unfolding.

KELLY: That is Ariane Tabatabai. She's an Iran analyst with the Rand Corporation.

Thank you very much for stopping by.

TABATABAI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.