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International Expert Says Trump Administration Must Prove Iran Is A Serious Threat

May 15, 2019
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Middle East scholar Vali Nasr calls the current confrontation between the U.S. and Iran a crisis manufactured by the Trump administration. Nasr is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He sees the president's decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal as the starting point.

VALI NASR: President Trump essentially took a situation that was fairly stable when he took office and created a crisis by undoing the deal that contained Iran's program, putting Iran - enormous amount of economic pressure and then adding military threat on top of it.

CORNISH: But what about the U.S. concerns about Iranian support for the Syrian regime, groups like Hezbollah, arming the Houthis missile test?

NASR: Well, look. There is a list of grievances the United States, Europeans and other members of the international community have against Iran, but these have not been seen as reasons for going to war with Iran. The proximate reason to go to war with Iran during the Obama administration was Iran going nuclear. That was taken care of by the nuclear deal.

Now the United States looks like it's lowering the bar as to what is justifiable reason for going to war with Iran or trying to escalate tensions with Iran. And they're putting literally everything on the table - so from support for Hezbollah, which has been there for a long time, to support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, to missile test, to the nuclear program and, increasingly, also, arguments about Iran's domestic human rights and political practices, as well. So if you're sitting in Tehran, you would say, well, if you look at this list, they are actually asking for regime change. They're asking for a completely new government in Iran. And that's a nonstarter with the existing government in Iran.

CORNISH: Now, Iran has signaled that it's going to restart some of its nuclear activities. What sense do you have of the conversations taking place in Iran?

NASR: There is a segment of Iranian political opinion that believes that since the Europeans, the United States, China and Russia are not able to abide with what they promised in the deal - in other words, to reward Iran's ceasing its nuclear activity with economic benefits to Iran - therefore, Iran should not do its part in the deal, either. And I think there's enormous pressure on the Iranian president to show that Iran is not going to stay in the deal unilaterally. And therefore, Iran has said that it's going to do less in the deal because the Europeans, Chinese, Russians and the United States are also doing less or, in the case of U.S., nothing at all. And I think Iran is also trying to gain some leverage with the United States, and the leverage here is to say, you know, we can go back to being a nuclear threat the way we were before the nuclear deal, if that's what you wish.

CORNISH: I want to talk more about that idea of a threat. U.S. Central Command responded to doubts about U.S. claims of increased threats from Iran, referring to what they called, quote, "identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region." Do you remain unconvinced?

NASR: I remain unconvinced because this is still not very descriptive of what the threat is. There's always a threat in the region. The United States decides to distinguish very serious threat from minor threats from moderate threats. And it looks like the United States is looking right now for any excuse to say that there's an imminent attack on U.S. forces coming, escalate pressure on Iran and hopefully to provoke Iran to do something that then would justify military action against Iran and that would force Europeans, Chinese and Russians to also fall behind the United States.

CORNISH: But to jump in here, the U.S. - you know, we're not the only ones reacting to the current situation. After the State Department issued its partial evacuation orders, the Germans and the Dutch said they were suspending military training in Iraq, citing security threats. What do you make of these moves?

NASR: Well, you know, different countries have to make a decision about how they're going to protect their personnel. This is not a support for U.S. policy of pressure on Iran. It is basically being cautious. So I think the burden is on the U.S. to prove that there is a serious Iranian threat, more so than it had existed before.

CORNISH: Vali Nasr is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thank you for speaking with us.

NASR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.