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What U.S.-Iran Tensions Mean For The Middle East


Longstanding tensions between the U.S. and Iran reached a near boiling point after the U.S. assassinated Iran's Gen. Qassem Soleimani. How does this affect the region? Dalia Dassa Kaye joins us now. She's director of the Center For Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation. She joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Let me ask you about the position of Iraq. The attack took place there. The U.S. has troops there in Iraq - has since the invasion in 2003. At the same time, Iran is their neighbor and has much influence - economic and even paramilitary units in the country. What does Iraq need from both the U.S. and Iran?

KAYE: Well, I think Iraq is in a very difficult position. So from the Iranian side, there is no way for the Iraqis to completely remove Iranian influence. Many Iraqi leaders have very close relationships with Iran.

And from the American side, I think this is where things are getting incredibly tricky. There's growing domestic pressure to force the United States out because it's creating a situation where Iraq is becoming a target for retaliation. On the other hand, it really needs the United States because it still faces a threat from the Islamic State. And so I think it's trying to manage all of these pressures at the same time.

SIMON: What about the position of United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain? These are countries that have U.S. bases but also still have a relationship with Iran.

KAYE: Yeah, that's true. Now, before the recent escalations that began really last summer with attacks on oil tankers and the most brazen attack, which was against Saudi Aramco, some took a much more hostile stance to the Iranians - the Saudis and Emiratis in particular. But what we've seen is there is unprecedented unity at the moment among Arab states wanting to see de-escalation, very concerned about the ramifications of this conflict and being targets as this situation continues to unfold.

SIMON: How unsettled are a couple of countries that both happen to be longtime U.S. allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia?

KAYE: Well, I think the Saudis are probably among those most concerned about the situation. They - it's not hypothetical for them. They did face a very, very serious attack against their major oil facility, and there was no response from the United States or others at that time.

So what we have seen is very interesting. There seems to be an incentive on the Saudi side and others to reach out to the Iranians in new mediation efforts. But I think of all the regional players, the Israelis are in best position to defend themselves should they be a target of retaliation. But, of course, the Iranians are signaling they don't distinguish between the United States and Israel, so I don't think there is a lot of complacency in the region that this is over.

SIMON: How worrisome is the possibility of Iran developing any kind of nuclear capacity to other countries in the region?

KAYE: Well, this is an ongoing concern and becoming a bigger concern since the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement back in 2018. There's still inspectors in the country, which is good news, but we could be facing the prospect that the Iranians could develop a capacity. I don't think they're going to break out to...

SIMON: Well, they haven't developed a weapon yet, right?

KAYE: No, but it's certainly a worrying trendline. And I think a lot of Iran's regional neighbors are watching this closely, are very concerned about it. But they're also concerned about Iranian meddling in other ways beyond the nuclear - I think is the more concerning issue at the moment.

SIMON: Do countries in the region see U.S. policy as coherent, clear?

KAYE: Well, no, unfortunately. I think that's one of the biggest concerns and why the risk remains so high. The concern is, is there a possibility the United States or some in the U.S. administration is looking for ultimately a change in leadership? And if that's the perception, that could lead to even more dangerous Iranian behavior.

SIMON: Dalia Dassa Kaye of the RAND Corporation, thanks so much for being with us.

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