U.S. sends warships, bombers to warn Iran
STEPHANIE RUHLE: Now we need to head overseas. The U.S. sending an aircraft carrier, warships, and fighter jets to the Middle East as a, quote, “unmistakable message to Iran’s regime.” But so far the White House is not saying exactly what prompted the move. Here’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talking about it overnight on a flight to Finland.
MIKE POMPEO: It’s something we’ve been working on for a little while. It is absolutely the case that we’ve seen escalatory actions from the Iranians and it is equally the case we will hold the Iranians accountable for attacks on American interests.
RUHLE: Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, my lucky day, joins me here in New York. Richard, I’m so glad you’re here because this means a lot. What exactly is the White House doing?
RICHARD ENGEL: Well, if you look at the political chess board, right? I think what you’re seeing here with this aircraft carrier is just one piece, and it’s quite a troubling picture when you look at it as a whole.
RUHLE: Paint it.
ENGEL: It seems like this administration is trying to paint Iran into a corner, maybe even provoke some sort of conflict with Iran. So take it one piece at a time. So you’re seeing this aircraft carrier floating near Iran. That’s a very provocative action. If you’re in Iran, that’s a very threatening thing. Then, why –
RUHLE: Isn’t that like me going one inch away from your face going, “Hit me. Come on, hit me”?
ENGEL: More or less, yes. And then, the reason the White House is saying it, and anonymous defense officials, is that they say this is to prevent Iran from carrying out an attack. So to go back to your analogy, it’s putting your face one inch from Iran and saying, “I’m doing this so that if don’t hit me – or if you hit me, I can hit you right back.”
Then look at another piece on the chess board. The U.S. just increased sanctions on Iran, tightened sanctions on Iran, denying Iran to really sell its oil around the world, threatening Turkey, India, China with sanctions if they do any business with Iran. So you’re floating this aircraft carrier in front with the threat that, “Should anything happen to American interests in the region, we’re gonna whack you.” You’ve just taken Iran’s ability to earn a living, support itself, by tightening these sanctions. Even though the rest of the world says that Iran is complying with the old nuclear deal.
Then another chess piece. Look at the timing. This come right after the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu got reelected by the skin of his teeth. And the Saudis would like this and the Saudis are very close to the Trump administration. Bolton is an Iran hawk, who was giving speeches for the MEK –
RUHLE: Okay, stay on this for a moment. Help me understand John Bolton as he relates to Iran.
ENGEL: So there are several Iran hawks, people in this administration who have for years been speaking about, been advocating for a hard line against Iran, if not direct violence against Iran and regime change in Iran. Rudy Giuliani has been one of them. John Bolton has been another. And they have spoken at gatherings sponsored by the MEK. The MEK used to be a terrorist organization, it was taken off the terrorist list. Iran certainly considers it a terrorist organization. And you go to these speeches, generally the MEK gives you money to appear at these speeches, and you talk about regime change in Iran. And Bolton and Rudy Giuliani have both been deeply tied into the MEK, and both have said that they don’t – have not disclosed how much they’ve ever taken in financial remunerations from the group.
RUHLE: On a one to ten scale, you being someone who has covered the Middle East for years, how concerned are you about the recent actions from our administration towards Iran, in terms of creating real conflict?
ENGEL: I think probably about a five at this stage. There’s a lot of time between now and the next elections, so just under two years we’re looking at. That’s enough time. That’s enough time to find some sort of provocation, go onto a conflict footing, which may have an impact on the political conversation in this country. But if you look at this administration, which is so close to President Trump personally, so close to Israel, so close to Saudi Arabia, Bolton and others in the inner circle, this warship going there, tightening sanctions on Iran even though the rest of the region – the rest of the world said Iran didn’t do it, it’s a troubling picture. I’d put it at a five, but we’ll see.
RUHLE: Putting it at a five, a troubling picture. Again, we’re so fortunate that the expert is here, Richard Engel.