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Will U.S. retaliation deter Iran?


Let's turn now to U.S. strategy in the Middle East and what the Biden administration is trying to accomplish with strikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. We're joined by Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. Good morning.

ABBAS MILANI: Good morning.

NADWORNY: So the U.S. has said deterrence and degrading the capabilities of these militias is the goal. How effective might these strikes be?

MILANI: I don't think they have been very effective. If you read the Iranian media, particularly the ones close to the IRGC, they haven't been effective at all. In fact, many of the IRGC papers make fun of these things. Javan says they hit 80 sites, almost all empty. So if the goal was deterrence, it hasn't worked. If the goal was to tell the American people and the Congress that the administration is doing something about it, in that sense, I think it has worked.

NADWORNY: What about when it comes to the U.S. sending a message to Iran? Are these strikes effective there?

MILANI: I think the message was very effective because as soon as President Biden talked about the possibility of retaliation, Iran began repeating almost ad nauseum that they had nothing to do with it. Iran's proxies, particularly in Iraq, declared that they will stop the attacks, so there was contrition. There was at least a tactical retreat. But concurrent with those pronouncements directed to the West, again, the Iranian media that was preaching to the converts for the regime was going full force on the need to continue the attacks, inviting Houthis, inviting the Shiites in Iraq to attack U.S. planes that are going towards Israel. I mean, they increased the rhetoric domestically but retreated diplomatically in public.

NADWORNY: Fascinating. So the - yeah, that kind of contrition. And how much control does Iran have over these militias?

MILANI: I think they have a great deal of control. They arm them. They train them. They pay a great deal of their expenses. But whether they control every action that those militias take - I'm not sure about that. I doubt it, but I think they have overall control. And if they wanted to tell Houthis not to attack ships, I think they absolutely have that power. And the fact that they have continued doing it, the fact that the Houthis, for example, have not targeted ships that belong to China clearly indicates that there is some method to this madness.

NADWORNY: Yeah, some global priorities coming down to kind of tactical - the tactical level. How concerned are you about the strikes sparking a wider conflict?

MILANI: I am not that concerned because I don't think, certainly, the Biden administration wants a general war with Iran. And unmistakably, the Iranian regime doesn't want a war with the United States. They're very weak economically. They're very isolated diplomatically. There is a great deal of dissent domestically. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction with any possibility of war. Domestically, Iranian media, again, has been writing how much people are traumatized by the possibility of another war. So the Iranian regime doesn't want a war, can't afford a war. But at the same time, by its nature, it can't also relent on its mad rhetoric of destroying Israel and destroying the United States and getting rid of the United States from all of the Middle East.

NADWORNY: Right. Yeah, to what extent is reducing tensions across the region just contingent on, you know, the U.S. helping to end Israel's offensive in Gaza?

MILANI: I think that will go a long way in making it more difficult for the Iranian regime to engage in its propaganda and Iranian regime's proxies to engage in its activities. I think there has to be a stop to the images that are coming out of Gaza. Those can only help the radical elements within the Islamic movement and the radical elements within the Middle East. Those are horrible images, just as the images of what the Hamas terrorists did to Israelis was horrible. The images of children and images of - reality of 27,000 people dead can't help Israeli security in the long run and only, I think, helps radical lunatics like the Iranian regime.

NADWORNY: In just our last bit here, what are you watching for next?

MILANI: I'm watching for both sides to try to walk away from the confrontation. I don't think either one wants to increase the tension. Both of them, if they achieve what they want politically, domestically, I think, will walk away from it.

NADWORNY: Yeah. That's Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. Thank you so much for spending time with us.

MILANI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.