Will new sanctions and statements escalate tensions with Iran?

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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported earlier, the Trump administration applied new sanctions today to more than a dozen people and companies tied to Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Hari Sreenivasan has more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The White House says the sanctions are not related to the nuclear deal, and structured in a way that maintains the U.S.’ commitments to that agreement.

At the same time, the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, also released a statement today, saying — quote — “The international community has been too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior. The ritual of convening a United Nations Security Council in an emergency meeting and issuing a strong statement is not enough. The Trump administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests.”

Joining me now for what the new sanctions and statements mean going forward is Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Karim, let’s start by putting this in context.

Who do these sanctions affect and what are they going to be prohibited from doing?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Hari, these sanctions are very targeted against individuals and entities that are affiliated or part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who are involved in Iran’s missile program and Iran’s support for regional militias.

And they’re very targeted. They’re not broad sanctions which are intended to really change Iranian behavior. But I do think they’re intended to do what General Flynn, the national security adviser, said, which is to put Iran “on notice” — quote, unquote.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How different are they from steps that perhaps the Obama administration would have taken had they seen this ballistic missile test happen on their watch?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: You know, the Obama administration was reluctant to sanction Iran and counter its regional behavior because they were very worried that that would provoke an escalation which would jeopardize the nuclear deal, which was the Obama administration’s main foreign policy legacy.

And the Trump administration doesn’t have those concerns. President Trump has routinely denounced the Iran nuclear deal as a disaster. And I think, in contrast to the Obama administration, the Trump administration’s national security brain trust, men like General Flynn, General Mattis at the Pentagon, these were men who served in Iraq, and they hold Iran responsible for the death of hundreds of U.S. soldiers.

And so they felt, during the Obama years, that they were restrained from being able to retaliate against Iran. And now they feel unrestrained and they’re confronting Iran in the region.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, Iran already this afternoon said that they are planning to take similar steps against members inside the United States. Does this escalate? Does this go further?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I do think, Hari, that we are in the early stages of an escalation which could eventually, over months, culminate in a military conflict either between the United States and Iran or Israel and Iran.

Now, Iran’s comfort zone is to have kind of managed, contained hostility between the United States and Iran. For four decades, that’s been a central part of the revolutionary ideology. But they have stopped short of actually going into military conflict with the United States.

I think that the early weeks and months of the Trump administration will be a time in which both countries are kind of feeling the other one out. Iran, I expect, will want to show that these sanctions and the taunts from Trump are not going to modify their behavior, but, at the same time, they will probably want to respond in a way which isn’t going to significantly escalate. They will want probably a gradual escalation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is the end goal for both sides here to see who will back out of the deal first, or who will, at least in the international community, lose face?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: You know, that’s absolutely right, that neither side will want to gratuitously tear up the nuclear deal and be blamed for it.

I think that one of the things the Obama administration did well is that they made the case to countries like China, Russia, America’s European allies that America tried to engage Iran, Iran didn’t reciprocate, and the problem lied in Tehran, not Washington.

I think the challenge the Trump administration will have is that you have a president in Washington who is gratuitously blusterous, not only toward America’s adversaries, but also America’s allies. And, at the same time, you have in Tehran a president, Hassan Rouhani, and a foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who in much of the world seems like moderates, reasonable figures.

And add on to the fact that the Middle East is in the throes of tumult and carnage. And for many countries around the world, including China, Russia and Europe, they see Iran as a force for stability in the region and an ally against ISIS.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Karim Sadjadpour, thanks so much.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Hari.

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