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How the United States and Iran avoided war in 2020


Four years ago, the Trump administration found itself in a predicament similar to the one now faced by his successor: How does a president respond to provocations by Iran without starting an all-out war?

In the first days of 2020, Iran fired a barrage of missiles at an Iraqi air base housing U.S. troops. The attack did not kill any Americans, but it marked the first time Iran had directly targeted a U.S. position in the Middle East amid decades of tensions. The strike came after the United States killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who the Trump administration said was orchestrating attacks against Americans.

This month, Iranian-backed militias struck a U.S. outpost in Jordan, killing three American soldiers. President Biden said he has decided how the United States will respond but did not disclose further information. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that the U.S. response “won’t just be a one-off.”

It appears that the United States and Iran — both then and now — do not want a wider war, with the Middle East on tenterhooks amid Israel’s war in Gaza. But a series of attacks, tit-for-tat strikes and skirmishes initiated by militant groups from Lebanon to Yemen has raised fears that wider conflict could embroil the region.

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The 2020 attacks on the al-Asad air base and another facility in Irbil had raised fears that the United States, under an often erratic Trump administration, would respond with actions that could ignite an enduring conflict. After the killing of Soleimani, President Donald Trump warned that any Iranian response would be met with a forceful one by the United States. He wrote on Twitter that he had identified 52 targets in Iran, including cultural sites, that would be “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

But even as Trump spewed fiery threats, his administration was attempting to stave off reprisals from Iran that could have spun things out of control. The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States sent messages in the days after the assassination to Iran, via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, urging it not to escalate things further.

It appears that the back-channel messaging worked.

“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said in an address at the time. Trump also imposed additional sanctions on Iran’s economy, a go-to nonmilitary tactic for many recent administrations.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, then Iran’s foreign minister, wrote that “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” referring to Iran’s retaliatory strikes on U.S. installations in Iraq. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

As fears of war faded, Trump held up the assassination of Soleimani as a victory, but he did not follow up with a broader military or economic strategy, which the United States has not had since the Reagan administration, said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“The question today is, did Iran stand down?” Vatanka said of the four years since. He noted that Iran has maintained its two pillars of belief that the United States should be run out of the Middle East, and that the state of Israel should not exist.

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It was not clear whether the Biden administration was pursuing similar back-channel communications with Iran; the two countries do not have diplomatic relations, complicating confidential dialogue. Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, said Wednesday that he did not “have any private communications with Iran to speak to.”

The situation in 2020 was also different: A sharp escalation in hostilities following the surprise assassination, versus a steady drumbeat of attacks by Iranian-backed groups on Biden’s watch, Vatanka said. Iran has “never been this close to pushing an American president knowingly with his eyes open into a conflict,” he added.

On Wednesday, Iranian Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, appeared to shy away from further escalation. “We are not looking for war, but we are not afraid of it either,” he said, as reported by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. “We are not warmongers, but we defend ourselves and our glory.”

It remains to be seen how Biden will respond to the deaths of the three U.S. troops. Administration officials have suggested in recent days that the U.S. response will be enduring, rather than a one-time strike.

The United States on Wednesday said that the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella set of militias that includes the group Kataib Hezbollah, was responsible for the attack in Jordan. Kataib Hezbollah backed down this week, a move that was reportedly ordered by Iran, which analysts say is seeking to distance itself from the attack.

“We’re not looking for a broader conflict,” Kirby said Wednesday. “We’re not looking for a war with Iran.”

For its part, Iran likely doesn’t want to agitate the United States further, Vatanka said, “because they know the outcome of that.”

Susannah George in Dubai contributed to this report.

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