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How European Leaders View The Rising Tensions Between The U.S. And Iran


European leaders are continuing to urge maximum restraint on both sides of the conflict between the U.S. and Iran. After the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal last year, European leaders stayed in the pact and encouraged Iran to stick with the plan.

To hear how those leaders are reacting to today's announcement by Iran, we turn to Ellie Geranmayeh. She's the deputy director of the Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. She helped advise European leaders on the nuclear negotiations that led to the Iran deal. She joins us now from Brussels. Welcome to the program.

ELLIE GERANMAYEH: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Now, Europe and the other nations who are still part of this pact have been trying to play nice with both Iran and the U.S. over the past few months, right? Does today's announcement out of Tehran make that harder for them?

GERANMAYEH: Well, it's certainly not helpful for the Europeans, who, as you say, have been trying to essentially buy time for this nuclear deal to survive and to try and persuade both Washington to reduce some of its maximalist demands and to try and persuade Iran to continue showing its patience in the way it's going to react to mounting U.S. pressures.

CORNISH: Now, as the Pentagon continues to release more details about the attack on two tankers last week, is that something that could matter to European leaders, who, ultimately, have been skeptical of U.S. policy at this point?

GERANMAYEH: Well, certainly, the Europeans have said they want to do a full assessment of the intelligence themselves before they come out with a firm position. But they've managed to do a pretty impressive job of delinking the regional issues and what's happening in the Persian Gulf from this nuclear deal and sustaining it. But, certainly, as the pressure mounts, from particularly Washington, for these two issues to be linked, you're going to start seeing some European countries distance themselves.

CORNISH: Can you talk about what European leaders think is behind U.S. strategy in general here?

GERANMAYEH: To be honest with you, from my discussions with them, there's a lot of confusion still. It's very unclear whether the U.S. just wants the deal to collapse without really giving a viable alternative in return or if, actually, they want to implode Iran from within in terms of imploding its economy, collapsing its state institutions.

Whichever direction the U.S. is going, it's clearly not great news for the Europeans, who Iran is very close to their borders. It's just next door in the Middle East. And we've seen what happens in the Middle East doesn't tend to stay there and has direct consequences for the Europeans. So the Europeans have been trying to urge, sadly, unsuccessfully so far, for the U.S. side to show a bit more pragmatism and realism about what it's expecting from Iran.

CORNISH: At the same time, you have said that Iran knows all the, quote, "red buttons." Can you talk about what that means and how that can contribute to escalation?

GERANMAYEH: Iran has essentially been living as a neighbor to the United States, if you think about it, for 20 years. Why? Since the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, which are two big, bordering countries to Iran...

CORNISH: Where there is an American troop presence.

GERANMAYEH: Exactly. And so I think that there is this confidence, at least in Tehran, that they know what the American red lines are. Now, the real risk and danger here is that Trump is such an unpredictable character, as well as his administration, that Iran may well think that it understands the escalation model that it's been playing with the U.S. for 20 years, but it may really get it wrong now with Trump.

CORNISH: What do you think could be the tipping point? What language are you going to look to hear over the next couple of days and weeks that'll give us a sense of whether European leaders would start to side with the U.S.?

GERANMAYEH: I think that some of the red lines for the Europeans relate to what Iran has threatened to do in its next phase of so-called noncompliance with this nuclear deal. And that relates to increasing the percentage threshold currently in place for enriching uranium. This is going to be a critical aspect of how Iran can expand its nuclear program. And that's where we might see the Europeans escalating this issue at the U.N. Security Council.

But we're definitely seeing the rhetoric and the sounds from Tehran escalate as the U.S. pressure campaign mounts on.

CORNISH: That's Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you for joining us.

GERANMAYEH: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.