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U.S.-Iran Tensions Continue To Simmer Through Coronavirus Epidemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

While the world is focused on the coronavirus pandemic, tensions have been simmering between the Trump administration and Iran. Today the president took to Twitter to send a warning to Iran - stop harassing U.S. naval ships with Iranian fast boats or else. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also accusing Iran of violating U.N. resolutions by launching a military satellite, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Trump tweeted that he's instructed the U.S. Navy to shoot down and destroy, quote, "any and all Iranian gunboats" if they harass American ships at sea. At the State Department, Secretary Pompeo was also talking tough, saying the U.N. Security Council should respond to Iran's latest satellite launch, this one by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the U.S. considers to be a terrorist organization.

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MIKE POMPEO: The Iranians have consistently said that these missile programs were disconnected from the military, that these were purely commercial enterprises. I think today's launch proves what we've been saying all along here in the United States. The IRGC, a designated terrorist organization, launched a missile.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration killed a top IRGC commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike in January. At the time, U.S. officials argued that the strike would restore deterrence. But there are ongoing incidents across the region. And Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran expert with the German Marshall Fund, says the Iranians and the Americans don't seem to be looking for a diplomatic off-ramp.

ARIANE TABATABAI: So neither side seems to be wanting to take a step back from where we are. And so that makes it a lot harder for Europeans, for anyone who's trying to play mediator to do so effectively.

KELEMEN: Speaking recently via Skype, she says Iran has an interest in distracting attention from the problems they're having at home dealing with COVID-19.

TABATABAI: There's been a lot of cover-up, incompetence, corruption. There have been a lot of issues that are their own government's issues. The U.S. maximum pressure campaign has not helped, though, and that is challenging because it doesn't allow the United States to sort of say that we have taken the higher road here.

KELEMEN: Secretary Pompeo, though, is still trying that approach, pointing out that Iran rejected an offer of U.S. aid.

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POMPEO: And all the while, they are launching satellites, driving ships around the Arabian Gulf, coming and harassing U.S. naval vessels. They continue to underwrite Shia militias that are working to support Hezbollah. Yesterday, my Iranian counterpart of the day before was in Syria talking to the butcher in Damascus.

KELEMEN: Critics of the maximum pressure campaign say these are signs that the U.S. policy is failing if it is really meant to get Iran back to the negotiating table and not to provoke a conflict with Iran.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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