How Iranians View Escalating Tensions
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Tensions with Iran crept very close to the edge this week after Iran shot down a U.S. drone. The president says the U.S. military had been, quote, "cocked and loaded" to strike. But he decided to pull back because he didn't believe the response would be, quote, again, "proportionate." I called it off, he said, with 10 minutes to spare. We wondered how the decision to order and then suddenly abort a military strike might be received in Iran - no better person to turn to than Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where he focuses on Iran and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Thanks so much for being back with us.
KARIM SADJADPOUR: Great to be with you.
SIMON: How do you think Iranian leaders will read the president's actions and words?
SADJADPOUR: I think that Iran's leadership is in a dilemma, Scott, because, on one hand, they know that their population certainly doesn't want war. On the other hand, the United States and the Trump administration have subjected Iran to this incredibly onerous sanctions regime. And just as America builds leverage against Iran with sanctions and economic pressure, Iran builds leverage against America by either threatening chaos in the Middle East or restarting its nuclear program. So I don't think that the escalation, the escalatory cycle between America and Iran, has ended yet.
SIMON: There is potential danger there as you see it.
SADJADPOUR: I do think so. I think that the - looking at it from a U.S. vantage point, the one thing those of us who follow American foreign policy oftentimes underestimate is the extent to which presidential decisions are made through the lens of domestic politics rather than foreign policy. And I think here President Trump also realized that his base in the United States doesn't want war.
SIMON: Yeah. And he campaigned on that. What do you see as the domestic political obligations for the Iranian regime? What do they have to do?
SADJADPOUR: I think that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is in a tight position because, on one hand, if he doesn't react to U.S. pressure then he risks losing face. He risks projecting weakness. On the other hand, if Iran reacts excessively, too aggressively to U.S. pressure, he risks losing his head. He risks destabilizing his regime. So they've been trying to operate within these tight parameters. But the reality is that the Iranian economy is really deteriorating as a result of these sanctions. And I don't see how they're going to be able to reverse it absent some type of an eventual accommodation or negotiations with the United States.
SIMON: Are they in a good position to negotiate that?
SADJADPOUR: Not yet - and I think that's why we will continue to see this escalatory cycle. It may be that Iran tries to wait out the Trump presidency, hoping that by November of 2020 a more moderate Democrat will be elected. But in the United States, we see our election calendar as being very close. But for Iranians, at a time they're struggling with 50% inflation, massive unemployment, brain drain, capital flight, November 2020 is a long ways away.
SIMON: Why would the Iranian regime, if this is how it happened, order the shootdown of a U.S. drone?
SADJADPOUR: You know, this is a very opaque system in Iran. And it's tough to sometimes know to what extent an action was sanctioned from the very top. And in some ways, President Trump gave Iran an out by saying that this was just a big mistake. This was a misunderstanding.
SIMON: Could have been a junior officer somewhere or something like that.
SIMON: Could it have been a junior officer somewhere?
SADJADPOUR: I'm skeptical that it could have been a junior officer, something of this magnitude shooting down a very expensive American drone. My guess is that it probably was sanctioned towards the top of the Revolutionary Guards org chart. Whether it went up to the supreme leader himself is very difficult to know. But I think Iran is a very tightly controlled authoritarian regime. And shooting down a $200 million American drone I don't think is a decision which would be taken by a junior officer.
SIMON: Should the United States and Iran pursue backchannel negotiations now?
SADJADPOUR: The challenge I think we have is that Iranians, particularly the Iranian supreme leader - in the few instances he's supported dialogue with the United States, it's been covert, backchannel about narrow topics whereas President Trump likes to have big pageants as he's had with North Korea.
SIMON: Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - always learn a lot from you - thanks very much for coming in.
SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.