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Escalating Tensions With Iran Have Far Ranging Implications


Let's look at the potential diplomatic implications of this event with Ambassador Barbara Leaf. She served as U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates until 2018, and she's also served as a head of the State Department's Office of Iranian Affairs. Ambassador Leaf, good morning.

BARBARA LEAF: Good morning.

KING: All right. So you spent a significant amount of time in the Gulf region. What's the effect of these escalating tensions in the Strait of Hormuz on both the U.S. military and economic interests there?

LEAF: So look, I would say these escalating tensions have far-ranging implications. And they go well beyond the U.S. military or indeed the states in that immediate area. I mean, they are escalating and rippling out to places like Iraq. But the interests that we have are pretty profound and longstanding.

KING: Is the shooting down of a U.S. drone something that is as unusual as we've been hearing this morning, or is there precedent for this kind of incident?

LEAF: Well, look, I mean, there was an effort to shoot down a drone about a week or so ago.


LEAF: And what is striking about this incident - and I do take CENTCOM's view on this - I would assume it was outside of Iranian airspace. Because we've seen their IRGC navy operate outside Iranian waters in the incidents of the last week and harassing ships, including those who were attempting to assist with the tankers that had been hit. So it is quite aggressive a move...

KING: On Iran's part.

LEAF: Yes. Exactly. And I do think we are inching closer to the prospect of a clash.

KING: All right. Well, let's talk then about diplomatic options. This is your business. What options do the U.S. and Iran have at this point to prevent a conflict?

LEAF: So, you know, as you know, we've had a 40-plus-year non-relationship that has quite frequently tipped into violence. And in such a setting, it really does - it becomes quite important to light up various channels, diplomatic channels. And you've seen a number of those options by the administration. The Swiss channel is the formal channel for communicating with Iran, and it is always useful. But I think, suffice to say, it is quite important in an escalatory phase, if you're trying to de-escalate, to begin to use a variety of channels, whether it's Oman, a European power, conveying a warning via Iraq but clarifying intent. And so in the first cycle of escalation that started in early May, you saw that begin to happen rather rapidly. I don't see it happening right now.

KING: When you say clarifying intent, what do you mean?

LEAF: So look, going back to early May, when the White House issued the statement May 5 by National Security Adviser Bolton, that was coming on being on the back of a set of intelligence streams - threat streams, as they call them - that had the administration and CENTCOM quite concerned. So there was a warning. Now, my problem with that May 5 warning was that it was far too broad. It was so broad in terms of laying out what would trigger military action on the part of the U.S. as to be almost meaningless. Or if not meaningless, to invite a test. And we've seen that happen again and again by Iran. And there's a definite escalatory spiral now at work, and I am increasingly concerned.

KING: Well, is Iran testing the United States? It sounds like what you're arguing for is for the United States to be much more specific about what would lead to a conflict, what would lead to...

LEAF: Yes. And...


LEAF: Yes. And so you've seen Secretary Pompeo do that at various guises. He did it when he went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi leaders, I think on May 7. He said very clearly, any attack on U.S. facilities, personnel, would meet with a swift response, or words to that effect. And he's repeated that. Now, the problem is, you also saw - so you've seen attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, on tankers of various flags, of various countries. In both cases, off of Fujairah, and then most recently, this week, tankers associated with Saudi and Emirati ports. That's a message to our partners that they will not go unscathed.

But of great concern to me was this set of Katyusha rockets, it would appear, directed at oil in oil facilities, operational facilities in southern Iraq. And I think that should concern everybody. And I'm not really clear at this point what Iran thinks it's doing.

KING: OK. Ambassador Barbara Leaf. She served as U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates until 2018. She's also served as the head of the State Department's Office of Iranian affairs. Ambassador, thanks so much for your time.

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