Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

What Diplomats Are Doing To Ease Tension Between The U.S. And Iran


Last night, the U.S. military almost attacked Iran but pulled back, says the White House, when the president decided the casualty count would not be proportional to Iran shooting down a U.S. drone. At the same time, President Trump has made no secret that he wants to talk to Iran. So far, the two sides seem to be only talking at each other, as tensions rise in the Persian Gulf. So what are diplomats doing to ease those tensions? NPR's Michele Kelemen takes a look.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.S. has called for consultations at the U.N. Security Council on Monday afternoon to discuss the downing of a U.S. drone by Iran and recent tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman. Iran is telling the security council that it will vigorously defend itself from what it calls U.S. hostile acts.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric says the region can't afford a major conflict.

STEPHANE DUJARRIC: The secretary general's message to all the parties involved is to avoid anything that would escalate the situation further and, as he put it, to have nerves of steel.

KELEMEN: He says the secretary general is reinforcing that message in public and in private. President Trump has been very public about what he wants, too - to build up the pressure on Iran to get back to the negotiating table. But Iran-watcher Karim Sadjadpour sees different goals among his advisers.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: You have President Trump who clearly wants to avoid conflict and is really interested in a deal with Iran. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have national security adviser John Bolton who has a long history of advocating for regime change and military strikes against Iran.

KELEMEN: And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to reconcile these contradictory impulses, says Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

SADJADPOUR: Pompeo's own instincts are closer to those of Bolton, but he also knows that he shouldn't stray too far away from the president. So I think Pompeo's task is really trying to reconcile two very different endgames that President Trump and national security adviser Bolton have vis-a-vis Iran.

KELEMEN: When Pompeo unveiled his religious freedom report at the State Department today, he avoided questions about his role in the discussions on Iran. President Trump says he called off a strike at the last minute Thursday night because there would've been too many casualties. President Trump seems to be leaving open the possibility of negotiations with Iran, but there are no low-level talks going on. So as Sadjadpour explains, the U.S. has to pass messages through intermediaries.

SADJADPOUR: There are only a few countries in the world which have both the trust of the United States and Iran. Historically, that role is - the role of mediator has been played by Oman, which is kind of the Switzerland of the Persian Gulf.

KELEMEN: Switzerland, too, plays a role. It represents U.S. interests in Iran. And Japan has passed messages, hoping to lower tensions in the Persian Gulf. The State Department's point person on Iran, Brian Hook, says Iran rejected the diplomatic opening offered by Japan and instead attacked a Japanese-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week. Hook is currently travelling in the Middle East, talking to Arab partners about the U.S. pressure campaign and joint efforts to protect the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIGHWAY SUPERSTAR'S "SKYLINES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.