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New Tensions Between U.S. And Iran After Tanker Attacks


Two more tankers ablaze in the Middle East this week, and tensions between the U.S. and Iran are heating up. The facts seem to be murky, but the accusations are clear - the U.S. says that Iran attacked the ships; Iran says it didn't. Ariane Tabatabai is an associate political scientist at RAND and joins us in our studio. Thanks so much for being with us.

ARIANE TABATABAI: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: From this distance, what do you read into the accusations and denials this week?

TABATABAI: Well, nothing unsurprising here. We knew that the administration was going to be pointing the finger at Iran. At the same time, we don't know all the facts quite yet, at least in the public domain. So we have to wait for more evidence to surface and potentially even an international independent investigation and confirmation from our allies as to what may have happened and who may be behind it.

SIMON: You saw the video the U.S. military released?

TABATABAI: I did, yes.

SIMON: And what did you think of it?

TABATABAI: I couldn't really tell what was going on. It was a...

SIMON: The U.S. military says it's Iranian sailors or Iranian assets...

TABATABAI: That's right.

SIMON: ...Removing the - like, the residuum of a bomb that they had planted and that didn't explode.

TABATABAI: That's right. The problem with the video is that it's obviously incredibly short, probably for classification reasons. And it's very hard for a layperson to kind of read the video properly and say what was going on there.

SIMON: Yeah. There was, we know, no loss of life. If - would Iran have any motive - what motive would they have to undertake this kind of attack?

TABATABAI: So it increasingly does look like Iran was behind the attacks, even though we don't have all the facts yet. It has several reasons why it would be doing this. But one reason would be to begin to impose some costs on the United States for its maximum pressure strategy. Until now - and the United States is perhaps the only country that is able to do this - it can actually undertake very comprehensive sanctions, politically isolate countries, without any real costs on itself. And so this is one way for the Iranians to showcase that, if they're going to be paying the costs of sanctions and political isolation, that they can actually begin to impose similar costs on the United States.

The other reason may be that they're trying to divide us more from our European allies, something that has been sort of a pattern over the past few years. And the Iranians have very much leveraged that in their relationship with the Europeans. Now, if this is part of their calculation, I think they're mistaken, and this may actually bring the U.S. and Europe closer together. But that may very well be a driver behind their decision-making here.

SIMON: Well, I want you to go with that thought. How could it bring the U.S. and its European allies closer together?

TABATABAI: Well, the U.S. and Europe started to split up over the Iran nuclear deal. The Europeans, obviously, have been very much for the deal and have been wanting to continue the implementation of the deal and build on it by addressing other areas of concern when it comes to Iran. President Trump, of course, had been wanting to leave the deal, until last year when he announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the deal. And since, we've had a number of tensions between the two sides of the Atlantic.

The one thing that hasn't been tested yet, though, is what happens if both sides of the Atlantic actually have similar threat perceptions from Iran, if there is a more urgent kind of threat from Iran than we have seen in the past.

SIMON: But if there were to be another action like this and a loss of life, would that ratchet up the odds a lot more?

TABATABAI: I think it would definitely enter a completely different phase of this current dynamic between the two sides. And the Iranians are actually very deliberate in their way of thinking about these things. They don't just start to try to sink ships and kill people; they introduce activities very gradually, and we've seen that in their nuclear program and how they've responded to the Trump administration, and now we're seeing it in naval operations.

SIMON: Ariane Tabatabai is an associate political scientist at RAND. Thanks so much for being with us.

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