A Look At The Diplomatic Options That Remain For Iran As Tensions With The U.S. Rise
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's been another day of insults and threats between Iran and the U.S. After President Trump ordered new sanctions yesterday against Iran's supreme leader and others, President Hassan Rouhani called the decision outrageous and idiotic. This morning, Trump tweeted that Iran's statement shows they do not understand reality. He pledged that any attack by Iran on anything American would be met with, quote, "great and overwhelming force." And if that wasn't explicit enough, he went on. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.
Ray Takeyh is with the Council on Foreign Relations, and he served as a senior adviser on Iran at the Department of State in the Obama administration. Welcome to the program.
RAY TAKEYH: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: Not very solemn messages on either side. Why do you think the Iranian response has been so heated in the last day?
TAKEYH: Well, I would say Iranian rhetoric toward President Trump has always been heated, and the supreme leader has called the president all kinds of names in the past. But they're obviously in a escalatory cycle here, and they're trading insults back and forth. But from the Iranian perspective, denigration of President Trump is not all that new.
SHAPIRO: Nor is the opposite. President Trump has been using strong words about Iran for some time now. He says his administration's goal is to get Iran to the negotiating table. Iran's Foreign Ministry says this last round of sanctions permanently closes the path of diplomacy. Do you take that as the final word?
TAKEYH: No. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson is not the final arbiter of all this. I think both countries do want to negotiate. The United States certainly does. And there are important actors within the Iranian political system that also do, including President Rouhani himself, who's been intrigued by the idea of negotiations with President Trump. Ultimately if they want to get out from under the sanctions, the only path out of that particular predicament is some kind of a negotiations between the two sides.
SHAPIRO: Do you think that the Trump administration is on to something when they say that a maximum pressure campaign will force Iran to the negotiating table? I mean, if you're saying Iran wants out from under these sanctions and negotiation's the way to get there, does that suggest the Trump administration is on the right track?
TAKEYH: The maximum strategy of pressure has been tactically successful. It has put enormous pressure on Iran. It has even managed to slice Iran's oil exports - unlikely to get down to zero, but it will be close to zero. So at a tactical level, this certainly has been successful. And I think at the end of the day, it will probably press the Iranian government toward the negotiations. Now, what happens at those negotiations of course remains to be seen.
SHAPIRO: The other option is that it presses both sides to war, intentionally or unintentionally. Both sides say they don't want this. Iran's president restated that today. Do you think that war is a real risk here?
TAKEYH: Confrontation between the two sides is always a risk. And there has been military confrontation between the United States and the Islamic Republic since the conception of the Islamic Republic, whether it was takeover of the American embassy, whether it was the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon and, most recently, of course in terms of targeting American military personnel in Iraq. So that's the reality of the situation - that United States and Iran have always coexisted in a measure of a low-intensity conflict. However, both sides have always walked back from the brink in terms of total war, and I suspect it will be that way in this case as well.
SHAPIRO: So who blinks to get the two sides to the negotiating table, given that the rhetoric has been increasing; the violence has increased over the last month? How do they get out of this cycle?
TAKEYH: Well, they were both heading toward the negotiations, and I think for the Iranians, a certain narrative of success was being established that could have served as a prelude to negotiations. Now comes again a series of American sanctions and Iranian responses.
Both sides at some point will get to their narrative of success. Iranians will suggest that they have withstood the American pressure and, therefore, they're prepared to talk. And the president has always been willing to talk without any conditions at any time. Then the Trump administration will also suggest that their policy of maximum pressure works. So at one point, when both sides declare victory, that's usually a prelude to the talks.
SHAPIRO: Ray Takeyh is an Iran expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks for speaking with us today.
TAKEYH: Thanks very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.