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What Is The Real Aim Of U.S. Pressure On Iran?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What is the real aim of the United States as it pressures Iran? The question has become more urgent as the U.S. confirms an aircraft carrier has conducted exercises in the Arabian Sea. The U.S. has cited Iranian threats against U.S. interests, though it has not shared its intelligence, and some U.S. allies have cast doubt on it. The rising tensions follow the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal a year ago and an escalation of sanctions. Iran recently said it would stop complying with parts of that deal.

So what's happening? We're joined in our studios by Douglas Ollivant, who was on the National Security Council staff during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Good morning, sir.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Morning.

OLLIVANT: Do you feel you are able to describe what the U.S. strategy is?

OLLIVANT: I don't think it's entirely clear what our strategy is. Look, the Iranians are not a - they're not a nice regime. We know that. That's a known known. They consistently demonstrate behavior that we would prefer they not. They sponsor small-level terrorist groups that continually harass our ships in the Gulf. They're not a friend of the United States.

INSKEEP: Larger terrorist groups as well.

OLLIVANT: Larger terrorist groups.

INSKEEP: Which is, like, Hamas, and so forth. Yeah.

OLLIVANT: Exactly. So we know that. Now, what's different in the last couple months? That's unclear.

INSKEEP: The U.S. says it wants an Iranian government that behaves itself, which is a way of phrasing it that sidesteps or is silent on the question of whether the U.S. wants regime change. When you look at the U.S. moves, do you see an effort at regime change?

OLLIVANT: Well, we're certainly not putting enough force on them to change the regime. That's - the phrase that I hear from the administration is regime behavior change, not regime change. Although, how you get that with the current cast of characters is not entirely clear.

INSKEEP: Well, we've spoken to Iranian officials in recent days, and one of them is Majid Takht-Ravanchi. He is the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. And here's part of what he told David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MAJID TAKHT-RAVANCHI: We are not interested in the escalation of tensions in our region because if something goes wrong, everybody will lose, including Iran, including the U.S., including all the countries in the region.

INSKEEP: Is the escalation of tensions in anyone's interest?

OLLIVANT: No. This is a region that does not have a lot of stability to start with. You know, stability is in short supply in the Middle East. We can all concede that. So adding more instability, you know, raising the level of tension helps no one.

And the Iranians have kind of helped us see this in their way. They've pointed out that they can strike at the Saudi oil infrastructure. And that while certainly the outcome of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran is not in doubt - the United States is still the supreme military power and could wipe their army off the map in a couple days - the Iranians would have the ability to totally disrupt the region, disrupt the flow of oil. And there would be huge shocks in oil markets were there to be any major military confrontation or even minor military confrontation in the region.

INSKEEP: Sure. And it seems widely understood that a U.S. old-style invasion of Iran would be even more difficult than the invasion of Iraq turned out to be.

OLLIVANT: Iran is three times as large, has three times as many people and about twice the landmass that Iraq did when we invaded in 2003. So if you're just doing the basic math - and it took us just over 100,000 troops to invade Iraq - what are we looking at to invade Iran?

INSKEEP: But let's look at the dilemma from the Trump White House's perspective here. The president did not like the Iran nuclear deal. The president seems to have agreed with those in the Obama administration who acknowledged that Iran did a lot of things the U.S. dislikes well beyond the nuclear deal, and there was the question about a deal with it. Now the Trump administration's main approach is to try to cut Iranian oil exports to zero and take other efforts to crash their economy. Do you see any better way to approach this problem?

OLLIVANT: Changing the behavior of a regime is really, really hard absent just invading it. We see this with Cuba. We see this with North Korea. We see this with Venezuela. It's extremely difficult to get a regime to change its behavior, so I'm sympathetic to the Trump administration's desire to have them change their behavior. And I think they're observing that the Iranians think they can run out the clock on the sanctions, the increased oil sanctions that've been placed on them, until spring of 2021, then banking on a...

INSKEEP: A new president.

OLLIVANT: ...A new president. That's certainly their strategy - ride this out for another 18 months. So they're trying to ratchet up the pressure. I'm sympathetic to what the administration is trying to do, but I don't see where we go from here.

INSKEEP: Douglas Ollivant is a former director for Iraq at the National Security Council, now a managing partner at Mantid International, which is a consultancy company that works with U.S. companies in Iraq. Thanks for coming by.

OLLIVANT: My pleasure, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.