As U.S. Increases Pressure, Iran Adheres to Toned-Down Approach

19 Sep 2020

As U.S. Increases Pressure, Iran Adheres to Toned-Down Approach

The Trump administration has ramped up its criticism of Iran, but Tehran has chosen a path of restraint, intelligence showed.

By Julian E. Barnes, David E. Sanger, Ronen Bergman and Lara Jakes

September 19, 2020


WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has increased criticism and pressure on Iran in recent days: accusing the country of planning assassinations of American diplomats, announcing hacking indictments, preparing unilateral sanctions and denouncing Tehran for interfering in the November election.

But the campaign to denigrate and isolate Iran belies Tehran’s current posture. Iran’s supreme leader has blocked any large, direct retaliation to the United States, at least for now, allowing only cyberactivity to flourish, according to American and allied officials briefed on new intelligence reporting.

Iran also abandoned plans it had a year ago to deliver an election season surprise this fall, like an attack on Persian Gulf shipping or Middle Eastern oil production intended to shock global financial markets and hurt President Trump’s chances of re-election, according to American officials familiar with the intelligence.

Iran recalculated after the pandemic devastated the world economy, making any sort of attack on oil production ineffective. Iran also now believes that any strike beyond covert cyberattacks would benefit Mr. Trump, allowing him to rally his base and give the United States an opportunity for a military response, according to American, allied and Iranian officials.

Iranian leaders, according to allied intelligence, have concluded that restraint is the best way to prevent Mr. Trump’s re-election.

Nonetheless, Mr. Trump and several of his top aides have portrayed Iran as an increasingly dangerous threat. On Saturday, the United States will reimpose sanctions on Iran, acting without the support of Europe, which opposes the move. Mr. Trump and Robert C. O’Brien, his national security adviser, have presented Iran as a threat to the fall election on par with Russia, an assessment that intelligence officials and outside experts say is wrong.

Some administration officials have acknowledged the Iranians’ recent restraint. In a briefing with reporters this week about the sanctions, Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s envoy for Iran policy, said Iran had been acting with a “certain degree of caution,” though he credited the shift to the American military strike in January that killed Major Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian commander who oversaw Tehran’s proxy forces around the Middle East.

American intelligence on Iranian intentions has always been imprecise, and officials would not discuss in detail the evidence behind the new assessments of Iranian caution. But officials said the conclusion of relative inaction by Iran was consistent with its recent actions in the Middle East.

Privately, Iranian leaders are convinced that the United States and Israel are running operations against them, according to allied officials briefed on intelligence. But they have held back on major retaliation, such as for a July explosion at its Natanz nuclear sites that Israel has been said to be responsible for. Iran did not publicly assign blame for the blast, which destroyed a plant making centrifuges and was a severe setback for its nuclear program.

Iranian officials sensed a trap, the allied officials said. Iranian officials believe that such attacks are aimed at luring them to retaliate so that the United States or Israel could respond with a military strike.

Despite Iran’s overall restraint, the increase in Iranian hacking attempts has been notable. Microsoft warned last week that a hacking group called Phosphorous that it has linked to the Iranian government has “unsuccessfully attempted to log into the accounts of administration officials and Donald J. Trump for President campaign staff,” an acceleration of attacks underway for months.

Microsoft, with the approval of a federal court, has seized 155 internet domains that it has proved are under the control of the Iranian group, and are used for attacks. But compared with past Iranian activity, the attacks have left American intelligence officials unimpressed.

Beyond the sanctions, the Trump administration has looked for other ways to intensify both its criticism and pressure on Tehran. The Justice Department announced four indictments in three days of Iranian hacking groups, though none were related to election interference. And the State and Treasury Departments also announced sanctions on Thursday related to Iranian hackers backed by Tehran’s intelligence agency who have targeted dissidents, journalists and others in the country.

The Navy announced the aircraft carrier Nimitz, and its accompanying support ships, had entered the Persian Gulf on Friday. Navy officials said the action was a long-scheduled training deployment but acknowledged that it also signaled to Iran to avoid any provocative actions as the new American sanctions take effect.

Administration officials have also emphasized Iran’s efforts at election interference. In addition to trying to infiltrate the Trump campaign, Iran has also used social media to criticize the White House’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and highlight social unrest in the United States.

But Iran is unable to combine its overt criticism with more hidden efforts to sow divisiveness in America with the effectiveness of Russian intelligence operatives, said Ariane M. Tabatabai, an analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy and the author of a paper released Thursday on Tehran’s efforts.

“Iran is doing a lot more things than they were, but we shouldn’t hype the threat either,” she said. “The biggest threat in election interference right now is not Iran.”

Iran is opposed to Mr. Trump’s re-election, according to a statement last month from William R. Evanina, a senior official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. But the statement was telling because it did not outline any actions by Iran that compare with Russia’s more robust election interference operations, said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.