Threats and sanctions: Battle of minds between the US and Iran

What we know (and don't know) about the state of US-Iran relations.

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NPR , | updated: 15:25

Safir satellite-carrier rocket for carrying Iran's Omid Satellite
Safir satellite-carrier rocket for carrying Iran's Omid Satellite

What exactly is going on between the US and Iran right now?

US personnel are being pulled from the embassy in Baghdad because of unspecified threats. Saudi oil tankers have been sabotaged — but by whom? The White House says it wants no war, but it has been ratcheting up tensions — and National Security Adviser John Bolton has repeatedly promised regime change in Iran by 2019.

On the other hand, Iran has given Europeans 60 days to figure out how to work around US sanctions, or else Tehran will start abandoning some of its nuclear deal commitments. And US allies are directly contradicting Washington reports of serious threats from the Iran-backed elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

"We've seen no change in the posture or the lay-down of the PMF," British Army Major General Chris Ghika said.

With Bolton leading national security, the question lingers: Is this back-and-forth escalation all heading toward conflict aimed at Iranian regime change?

"I don't know," Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said. "I think the administration has decided that taking an incremental approach with the Islamic Republic hasn't been successful. So they intend to use maximum economic pressure and they are taking precautions, certainly, that to let the regime know that they're willing to use military force if the Islamic Republic does certain actions."

Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, echoes the uncertainty surrounding US intentions and endgoals. But he notes the potential for miscalculation is "always a possibility" with the military forces in close proximity.

"I don't know what the Trump administration, actually, is trying to accomplish here — whether this is sort of just largely symbolic or whether this is an attempt to put pressure on Iran so that they'll negotiate some kind of new nuclear deal, something the president has talked about occasionally," Walt said. "And then there's the question that maybe we're putting all this pressure on Iran because we really do want regime change, something John Bolton and others have pushed for. I think that's very unlikely to happen."

Gerecht says the differences of opinion among security and state department leaders suggest that, for now, the use of sanctions might be the only area of consensus when it comes to US action.

"We certainly use sanctions more intelligently and aggressively than we have in the past," he said. "But I don't see any other plans on the table. I'm skeptical that this is a stepping stone to military confrontation."