U.S.-Iran Strife 'A Very Interesting Situation,' Says Former American Diplomat In Middle East

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An Iranian man walks past a mural painted with the Iranian flag in Tehran. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iranian man walks past a mural painted with the Iranian flag in Tehran. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is in Bahrain Tuesday to kick off a peace conference between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

But right now, the major focus when it comes to the Middle East is Iran. The country lashed out at the U.S. after new sanctions were announced Monday, saying the move represents a "permanent closure" of diplomacy. Trump responded Tuesday, threatening to meet any Iranian military action with "great and overwhelming force."

Douglas Silliman, who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq until this year and to Kuwait before that, says the two countries are in a "very interesting situation."

"The imposition of frankly very crushing economic sanctions on Iran by ... the Trump administration, has put a lot of pressure on Iran," says Silliman, now president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C. "The economy shrank last year. The currency is mostly now unable to be used for international transactions."

Those sanctions have also directly impacted "more radical parts of the Iranian government," Silliman (@DougSilliman) tells Here & Now — namely armed forces units like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force. He says these adverse effects have led Iran to take retaliatory action, like shooting down an unmanned American drone last week.

"What you have seen over the course of the past week is Iran coordinating a number of small-scale but largely deniable attacks to put pressure on the United States, but probably also to put pressure on the producers of oil and the consumers of oil around the world to try to get them to put more pressure on the United States," Silliman says.

Here is Silliman's take on a few other big-picture questions surrounding U.S.-Iran tensions, and what those tensions mean for the Middle East.

What Does Iran Want From The U.S.?

"That's a really good question, because especially with the reaction overnight to the sanctions against Ayatollah Khamenei that the Trump administration has put in place, there was an absolute, seemingly permanent rejection of dialogue with the United States," Silliman says. "Ultimately, Iran needs dialogue, and Iran needs to find a way to make some changes in their policy to make sure that the Trump administration will release the sanctions at least to some extent.

"The very hard-line position of Iran seems to me to be based more on pride and moral outrage than on pragmatic steps toward a conclusion that will be good for Iran."

Do U.S. Allies In The Middle East Want Military Action Against Iran?

"I think those states [like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates] universally want to see Iran cut down to size, and there have been a number of more warmongering statements from some commentators in the Gulf," Silliman says. "But I point especially to one by Emirati foreign ministry official Anwar Gargash ... where he calls for a dialogue and de-escalation. Ultimately, it is important for the oil-producing states of the Gulf to be able to export their oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

"It's also important for the oil-importing states, now primarily the customers of the Gulf in Asia — China, Japan, South Korea and India — also to have freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz so that oil can get out. So I think that there are radical voices in the Gulf, but thus far the governments have been more moderate in their tone and in their actions, and it doesn't appear to me at least that they are pushing for war."

"The very hard-line position of Iran seems to me to be based more on pride and moral outrage than on pragmatic steps toward a conclusion that will be good for Iran."

Douglas Silliman

Who Are Iran's Allies In The Region?

"Iran does not have many state-actor allies — in fact they really don't have any at this point. Russia has been helping the United States manage Iranian excesses, particularly in Syria. Turkey has a love-hate relationship with Iran. They have gone back and forth over time, but they do not share Iran's strategic goals of destroying Israel, spreading a Shia-inspired revolution in the region," Silliman says. "So there are countries that have at times not opposed Iran or have been mildly supportive of some of their rhetorical statements, but in general, would not support Iran cutting off the supply of oil coming out of the Persian Gulf or significantly ramping up hostilities in the region.

"And again, you saw yesterday with the meetings of national security advisers of the United States, Israel and Russia, likely a discussion aimed at how to calm down and even out the tensions in the region so that the economies of the region can move forward more rationally."

Cassady Rosenblum produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on June 25, 2019.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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