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Understanding The Latest In Iran-Saudi Tensions


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading to Saudi Arabia tonight to discuss the weekend strike on that country's oil processing fields.


The U.S. is sticking to its claim that Iran is behind the strike. And officials have told NPR that surveillance satellites provide circumstantial evidence that Iran launched the attack from its own soil. The Iranians continue to deny this claim. Instead, the Houthi rebels in Yemen claim responsibility. The Saudis are not convinced.

SHAPIRO: To help us understand what the U.S. may do next, Ali Vaez joins us now. He leads the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group.


ALI VAEZ: Thank you. Pleasure to be with you.

SHAPIRO: What do you expect Secretary of State Pompeo will hear from the Saudis? And how closely do you think he should listen to them?

VAEZ: Well, Secretary Pompeo put the blame for this attack on Iran just a few hours after it occurred. I don't think that he's going there to consult with the Saudis and try to find who was really responsible for this attack because the secretary seems to have already drawn that conclusion. He's probably going there not just to hold the hands of Saudis but also probably to discuss what are the options for retaliation, either jointly by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia or probably just by the U.S.

SHAPIRO: So it's not a discussion about who was responsible. It's not a question about whether there should be retaliation. It's a discussion about what the retaliation should be.

VAEZ: I think that would be the case, although the Saudis seem much more cautious and careful than the U.S. in attributing blame. What they're trying to do is to get the U.N. involved and get kind of an impartial investigation into what exactly happened. The problem at this stage is that the Trump administration has very little credibility in the eyes of the international community to assign blame for this and has portrayed the Iranian regime as the source of all evil in the region. So it will be hard to believe them unless they can provide with some really concrete and definitive evidence.

SHAPIRO: It is an interesting dynamic, where the Saudis were the actual victims of the attack, and yet they seem less eager to assign blame than the Americans, who were not personally attacked.

VAEZ: You know, we've seen this movie before. In June, there were a series of attacks, and the U.S., again, was very quick to put the blame on the Iranians. But the Emiratis conducted an investigation and, at the end, were quite reluctant to name the Iranians as the culprits because they were worried about the consequences of doing so. And instead, the Emiratis have almost left the Trump administration's coalition against Iran and have taken a step back to reduce tensions with Iran.

SHAPIRO: What do you think Iran's interest here is?

VAEZ: First of all, it's hard to really say if the Iranians were directly involved in this or not. You know, it's a mistake to overlook the Houthis' agency here. Now, if Tehran was indeed behind the attack, I think it is trying to impose a cost on the U.S. and its allies for inflicting maximum harm on the Iranian economy. This was the entirely predictable outcome of the Trump administration's maximum pressure strategy. And the attacks clearly demonstrate that the strategy of bombing and blockading the Yemenis and starving the Iranians into submission is more likely to backfire than to bring the intended policy results.

SHAPIRO: And so what advice would you give to each side here?

VAEZ: Look. The reality is that the Iranians have increasingly less to lose as a result of the sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on them and does seem to have become increasingly less risk-averse. And I think any retaliation against Iran is more likely than not to prompt an Iranian counterattack that, in turn, risks inflaming the entire region.

So the solution is not to further escalate tensions but to capitalize on the initiative that President Macron of France has put on the table to de-escalate tensions between Tehran and Washington. That's the only way out. That's the last and best option for averting a disastrous regional war in the Middle East that would have basically no winners.

SHAPIRO: Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, thank you for speaking with us today.

VAEZ: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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