How months of miscalculation led the US and Iran to the brink of war
In late September, a plane carrying senior Iranian officials touched down in Abu Dhabi, the gleaming capital of the United Arab Emirates.
The Middle East had witnessed a summer of violence, and a meeting with the Iranians was part of a quiet strategy by Emirati leaders to defuse the tension. The small but powerful Persian Gulf nation wanted to broker a separate peace — avoiding violence that could shatter its decades-long effort to present itself as a modern, stable oasis in a volatile region.
But the meeting set off alarms inside the White House, where officials learned about it only after reading reports from U.S. spy agencies. The Emirati government, a stalwart ally that had long pushed for a hawkish American approach toward Iran, was in secret talks with Iranian officials. National Security Council officials met to discuss the implications: A united front against Iran — carefully built by the Trump administration over more than two years — seemed to be crumbling.
The episode came in the midst of a nine-month period that shook up the United States’ already combustible relationship with Iran — beginning with the Trump administration’s escalation of sanctions and culminating with the two powers in a direct military confrontation on the brink of wider and bloodier conflict.
The decision by President Donald Trump to authorize the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander, might ultimately deter future Iranian aggression. Yet a recent CIA analysis concluded that Iran, while struggling to continue funding its military activities under American sanctions, appears no closer to entering direct talks over its nuclear program.
But the fissures in the American-led anti-Iran coalition, exemplified by secretive Emirati-Iranian talks, have dimmed a vision of a realignment in the Middle East long advocated not only by Trump, but also by the leaders of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
Iranian officials also miscalculated, believing that after a series of escalatory military operations — the tanker attacks, the shooting down of an American drone, the Saudi oil strikes, rocket attacks on bases in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias — Trump would refrain from responding consequentially.
“There were dueling perceptions both in Tehran and in Washington that the other side was a paper tiger,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In the predawn darkness on May 12, mines placed by naval operatives suspected to be members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard blew holes in four oil tankers anchored in the Gulf of Oman.
According to analysts and Western intelligence officials, Iran’s attacks carried an unmistakable message: If we cannot export oil, then we will not let you do it either. Iran’s response to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign was to enact a pressure campaign of its own.
Plummeting oil revenues appeared to be prompting Iranian leaders to dial back funding for military operations around the Middle East. Many inside the White House believed that the economic pain was so great that Iran would, by year’s end, be willing to negotiate over its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
But even as Iran weighed renewed diplomacy, its military provocations persisted. In mid-September, Iran hit Saudi Arabia, a powerful U.S. ally, in a coordinated attack of drones and cruise missiles that set two oil-processing facilities ablaze.
“They are trying to get the U.S. to see the high cost of pressuring Iran, both economically and militarily,” said Ariane M. Tabatabai, an Iran expert at RAND Corp.
In the Saudi attacks, many experts saw a careful Iranian strategy of escalation based on a conclusion that Trump had no stomach for potentially deepening U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
The Emiratis began their secret talks with Iran after concluding they could play a unique role lowering temperatures and that they had little confidence in the Trump administration’s approach to Iran, according to American and other Western officials. And the Saudis also explored a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran using Iraqi and Pakistani intermediaries.
The anti-Iran alliance that the Trump administration had tried to build was faltering. Then came the new year, and a confrontational exchange on Twitter — Trump’s favorite way to communicate.
“Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump tweeted on New Year’s Eve. “Happy New Year!”
Hours into 2020, Iran’s supreme leader responded with a taunt.
“You can’t do anything,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wrote on his English-language Twitter account. He added: “If you were logical — which you’re not — you’d see that your crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan … have made nations hate you.”
Two days later, Soleimani was dead.
Nine months of escalation, misjudgments and heated rhetoric had led to the president’s decision, which stunned both his own military advisers as well as top officials in Tehran.
“It was clear that Iran didn’t expect Trump to retaliate in any meaningful way,” said Sadjadpour, the Iran expert.
The killing prompted Iran to take a step it had long avoided: a direct and overt strike against the U.S. military. Four days after Soleimani was killed, Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at two American bases in Iraq. More than 100 U.S. soldiers were injured, but no one was killed.
In the weeks since, they have insisted that their strategy is working, that the steady squeeze of “maximum pressure” will force Iran to yield to their demands. But, at least publicly, Iran remains defiant and wedded to brinkmanship tactics.
Hours after Iranian missiles landed on the American bases in Iraq, Khamenei vowed that “harsh revenge” was just beginning. “The United States’ corruptive presence in the region must come to an end,” he told a large crowd in Iran’s holy city of Qom, adding that Iran would not rest until it accomplished that goal.