President Trump appeared to be softening toward Iran. He had broken with his administration’s leading advocate of confrontation, signaled a willingness to meet personally with his Iranian counterpart, and reportedly considered relaxing some sanctions.
But Iran, American officials say, responded with violence. The officials have accused Iran of orchestrating or even launching a major attack on Saturday against critical Saudi Arabian oil installations, jolting international energy markets and humiliating a key American ally.
But the slap-the-other-cheek tactic is hardly surprising, Iranian scholars say. Tehran, they said, has concluded that its recent aggressions have effectively strengthened its leverage with the West and in the region. And despite his occasional outburst of threats, Mr. Trump is deeply reluctant to risk an open-ended military confrontation in the Middle East that would endanger world oil supplies in the middle of a re-election campaign.
“Iranian hard-liners consider Trump’s inconsistency to be weakness,” said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. For Iranian hard-liners, he said, “their policy of ‘maximum resistance’ is working.”
Mr. Trump has imposed punishing sanctions that Iranian leaders call “economic warfare,” but he has already demonstrated his aversion to using military force.
American officials concluded that Iranian forces sabotaged a handful of oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz in May and June, and shot down an American surveillance drone in June. Mr. Trump initially ordered a wave of American airstrikes in retaliation for the downing of the drone, but he called it off at the last moment.
John Bolton was forced out as President Trump’s national security adviser, reportedly over a disagreement with the president over talks with Tehran.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
Then the administration’s leading Iran hawk, John Bolton, was forced out as national security adviser, reportedly over a disagreement with the president over talks with Tehran.
Iran, demanding relief from sanctions, appears to be lashing out, whether directly or through allies. The muted reactions from Washington — including the initial response to Saturday’s attack — appear to have validated that strategy, several analysts said.
Even as Mr. Trump added his voice to the chorus of officials pointing to Iranian responsibility for the attack, he repeated his aversion to armed conflict and hopes for negotiations, saying, “I know they want to make a deal.” He had already said any retaliation over the attack would depend on input from Saudi Arabia, which put off the question by calling for a United Nations inquiry.
Iran has denied responsibility for the attack, and an Iranian-backed faction in Yemen, the Houthis, has claimed it. But the strikes demonstrated more clearly than ever that Iranian forces or their regional surrogates can imperil American clients and global oil supplies, even while under punishing sanctions.
“The Saudi air defenses have been proved completely worthless,” said Michael Knights, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They are not going to be ready for Round 2.”
Nor does Iran appear to be suffering any penalty in international diplomacy, said Ellie Geranmayeh, a scholar of Iran at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The European powers, she said, blame Mr. Trump for starting the escalation that led to the attack by withdrawing the United States from the 2015 deal that world powers had signed with Iran to remove sanctions in exchange for limitations on the country’s nuclear program.
After abandoning the accord last year, the Trump administration imposed punishing sanctions on Iranian oil sales in a bid to win a more restrictive nuclear pact. European powers, opposing the American sanctions and hoping to salvage the 2015 deal, have sought to offer relief.
President Emmanuel Macron of France has recently proposed a $15 billion line of credit to encourage Iran to comply with the deal, apparently hoping that the United States will return to it — possibly after the election of a new president. And none of the European powers have indicated that they are pulling back from their diplomatic efforts.
Ms. Geranmayeh argued that the attack on Saudi oil facilities was “a warning shot” that may have been calculated to improve Iran’s leverage in any negotiations with Mr. Trump or the Europeans. Or, if the Iranians were impatient with the pace of European diplomacy, she argued, the attacks might goad the Europeans to hurry.
Iranian hard-liners have long held a cynical view that American decision makers understand only the threat of force, scholars say. But in the first year after Mr. Trump abandoned the nuclear accord, Iran continued to abide by it and refrained from any retaliation, a policy it called “strategic patience.”
It got them nothing, analysts say. Initial European efforts to coax Washington back to the deal went nowhere. American allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — all regional rivals to Iran — urged Washington to increase the pressure.
Then the Trump administration began using the global reach of the American financial system to try to block Iranian oil sales anywhere in the world, cutting off the lifeblood of the Iranian economy.
Tehran embarked on a dual strategy to fight back. Publicly, it began taking calibrated steps to exceed the limits of the 2015 nuclear deal, citing certain provisions in the agreement as justification for its noncompliance.
At the same time, Western officials have concluded, Iran began to demonstrate that it can threaten global oil markets, forcing others to share its economic pain. In addition to the attacks on tankers, which American officials say Iranian forces carried out with naval mines, Iran has also seized a few ships, including a British-flagged oil tanker that was taken in an apparent retaliation for the capture of an Iranian tanker by British forces near Gibraltar.
It suffered little penalty. The United States declined to retaliate for the tanker sabotage. With Britain eager to lower the temperature, officials in Gibraltar, a British territory, freed the detained Iranian vessel last month.
The European powers accelerated their efforts to provide sanctions relief and preserve the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Even the United Arab Emirates appeared to step back from conflict. The Emirates declined to publicly blame Iran for the damage done to tankers in its waters. Instead, Emirati officials held talks with Iran about maritime security. And at the same time, the Emirates began to withdraw from a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen against the Houthis.
The Emirates “have awoken to the fact that they are very exposed,” said Sanam Vakil, a scholar of Iran and the Persian Gulf at Chatham House, a policy institute in London.
With the Emirates signaling that it wants to avoid further escalation, she said, Tehran was beginning to succeed in its long-held goal of dividing the anti-Iran alliance in the region.
“They have already been able to split off the U.A.E., so Saudi Arabia is next,” Ms. Vakil said.
Ultimately, Ms. Vakil said, the Iranians appear to have concluded from the recent American actions that confrontation cannot lose, because even a potential American military action would almost certainly be a limited strike designed to avoid a prolonged ground war. Domestically and in the region, surviving such a strike could strengthen the current Iranian government by rallying public opinion.
“They are challenging American supremacy and forcing the international community to come to terms with a new relationship with the Islamic Republic,” she said. “They come out ahead no matter what happens.”
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