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U.S. On Misguided 'Propaganda Campaign' Against Iran, Scholar Says


Now to the escalating tensions between the United States and Iran. To recap, there were explosions Thursday on two commercial oil tankers in the strategically sensitive Gulf of Oman. Both explosions follow four other similar incidents that took place nearby in May.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the latest incidents and used strong language, calling them an attack on international peace and security as well as an assault on freedom of navigation. Iran maintains that it had no role in the explosions and called the U.S. accusations part of a campaign against Iran. And all of this is taking place as the Trump administration is hoping to pressure Iran for what it considers better terms after earlier pulling the U.S. out of the deal aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear campaign.

So in this moment of rising tension, we thought it would be helpful to get perspective from someone who's been involved in previous negotiations between the two nations. Gary Sick negotiated the agreement that ended the hostage crisis that began during the Carter administration. He's now a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Middle East Institute. Gary Sick, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

GARY SICK: It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: How do you view what happened this week?

SICK: Perhaps the most interesting part of it is the number of loose ends that we have. On one hand, Secretary Pompeo said there was no doubt Iran was responsible for the whole thing. And he listed a whole series of things that he said Iran had been doing, one of which was apparently an unknown militia in Iraq and the other was action by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

So maybe Iran really was responsible for the attacks on the tankers. But I think the fact that Pompeo chose to blame them for absolutely everything that's going on in the region that we don't like is a pretty good indication that the United States really is on a kind of propaganda campaign against Iran. But that doesn't solve the problem.

MARTIN: I was going to ask about the Iran side of this. So just, you know, for the sake of argument, what would Iran's motive be - if these attacks detected - what would be their motive?

SICK: As I say, I'm not doubting too much that Iran had a hand in this thing. Their motive is I think quite clear. We are in the middle of a signaling process that is going on. The United States is actually cracking down on Iran so that, basically, Iran not only can't sell oil. It can't sell its refined products. And, increasingly, Iran's closed out of international markets for just about anything that they produce.

So we are basically putting Iran under siege, and they're going to try to strike back at some point. So if I were sitting in Iran and thinking about what I could do, making the cost of oil higher for the rest of the world is a pretty interesting way of responding and saying, you can't do this cost-free.

MARTIN: Where do you see this going? Given that you've identified that the administration is engaged in a policy of trying to isolate Iran, diplomatically and economically, to achieve what it would consider better terms in the Iran nuclear deal - so is there any scenario in which you can see this tactic bringing Iran back to the negotiating table?

SICK: If the United States wants to do that, they're not going to succeed by just piling on the pressure until Iran collapses. Iran won't collapse. They've been through some very tough times - including a war with Iraq, which was far more dangerous to them than the threats that we're putting against them now - and they didn't crack.

So Iran, I think, is going to respond to what it sees as its advantage. If the Trump administration were prepared to say we're going to remove a good part of the sanctions on Iran if you will sit down at the table, I think Iran would probably take that very seriously. The Trump administration, because of its opposition to the nuclear deal, created a crisis that really wasn't necessary.

And it could get worse. There is a real chance of misperception and misunderstanding that leads to military conflict. And I think this is something that nobody wants.

MARTIN: That's Gary Sick. He's a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Middle East Institute. Mr. Sick, thank you so much for talking to us.

SICK: It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.