Trump administration hawks have spent the last two weeks decrying an increased threat from Iran. But U.S. intelligence officials assess that Iran’s aggressive moves came in response to the administration’s own actions.
Three U.S. government officials familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that officials in multiple U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Iran’s new, threatening activity–which the administration points to in justifying its military presence in the Persian Gulf–is in response to the administration’s aggressive steps over the last two months. The National Security Council, the CIA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not provide comment for this story.
In addition, multiple lawmakers on Capitol Hill familiar with American intelligence about Iran told The Daily Beast that Tehran’s aggressive moves—reportedly planning attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq and loading missiles on fishing boats in the Gulf—appear to be in response to Washington’s moves to press the Islamic Republic and its leadership. The Trump administration’s decisions to tighten oil sanctions and to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group were particularly provocative, lawmakers said.
“Clearly the Iranians are not happy with the maximum pressure campaign that the U.S. is imposing on them, including the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization,” said Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn. “And so I think they’re lashing out, and some of the threats are very concerning.”
Cornyn also said that if the U.S. had held back, the new Iranian threat may not have materialized when and how it did.
“As long as they’re having their way, maybe not, as long as that works for them,” he said. “But clearly, things are not working for them the way they had hoped.”
National Security Adviser John Bolton has previously said the administration’s aggressive efforts aim to squeeze Iran “until its leaders decide to change their destructive behavior, respect the rights of the Iranian people, and return to the negotiating table.” But the policy doesn’t appear to have put leaders there in a mood to make concessions.
In fact, as The Wall Street Journal first reported, Iran’s posture toward American interests became more hostile in direct response to the administration’s moves, according to the assessment of multiple U.S. intelligence officials.
“I would characterize the intelligence I’ve reviewed as very murky, as reflective of generally increasing tensions in the region, and I have developed a belief that most of the activities that the Iranians are undertaking are in response to our very aggressive posture in the region,” Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast.
A third lawmaker privy to classified information about the Iran threat also hinted at a connection between the administration’s actions and Iran’s increased belligerence.
“Without sharing any of the intelligence, the answer is, there’s nothing there that indicates that we should send B-52 bombers, a carrier fleet, and the Marines,” he said. “So what’s going on here? What’s going on here? Wagging the dog?”
“I don’t get the policy that is coming from the intelligence,” he added.
One source said that American intelligence officials assess that Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s covert action arm, thinks he can ease pressure by jabbing the U.S. with some act of retaliation. The Quds Force commander oversaw Iran’s support of Shia proxy groups during the peak of the Iraq War, when those militias killed hundreds of American troops with improvised explosive devices and rocket attacks. The source said that experience has informed Soleimani’s view of how to deal with the Trump administration’s latest moves. The Daily Beast previously reported that Soleimani has told proxy fighters in Iraq that a conflict with the U.S. will come soon.
The administration’s designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group is key, according to the sources. Before it happened, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, then the commander of the IRGC, warned that “the US Army and American security forces stationed in West Asia (Middle-East) will lose their current status of ease and serenity.” According to Politico, senior officials in the Defense Department also pushed back against the designation, arguing it could provoke more Iranian aggression. Despite that, the Trump administration moved ahead with the designation and followed it up with new rounds of sanctions
The State Department later announced in April that the U.S. would stop issuing waivers that let countries buy oil without risk of U.S. sanctions. More recently, strategists inside and outside the Trump administration have been sketching out new rounds of sanctions which they hope would cripple the Iranian economy.
Republicans leaving a classified briefing for the House Armed Services Committee early Thursday morning praised the president’s decision to rush the deployment of a carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Persian Gulf.
“It’s not our job to be proportional,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Michigan Republican on the committee who attended the classified briefing. “It’s our job to say, enough, and there are costs.”
But the idea that the maximum pressure campaign could lead to retaliation from Tehran makes sense to Iran watchers.
“The mystery has been why has it taken so long,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran scholar at the Brookings Institution who has long advocated a less bellicose approach to relations with Tehran. She said Iranian leaders have felt “boxed in” by the twin pressures of a desire to push back against the Trump campaign’s actions and wariness about what that might provoke.
The recent moves in the maximum pressure campaign, however, may have changed that calculus. “I think that’s what the Iranians came to appreciate, that they had less to lose after the series of announcements which came in April and early May and that it was time to deliver at least a subtle message.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu—a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which has long pushed for Washington to challenge the Tehran regime—agreed that Iran appeared to be more willing to accept risk in its pushback against the Trump administration. “While strategic patience best explains Iran under Year One of maximum pressure, under Year Two their policy can be called graduated escalation. Even Iran's threats to leave the nuclear deal are calculated and calibrated, designed to increase the burden of formulating an appropriate response from Washington that can punish Tehran and deter escalation.”
At least in public, leaders in Washington and Tehran say they want to avoid conflict. On his official Twitter account, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to try to tamp down the recent tension. “We don’t seek a war nor do they. They know a war wouldn’t be beneficial for them,” he wrote on Tuesday.
Trump has echoed that sentiment. He reportedly balked at the recent planning by Bolton and other aides that could involve the deployment of 120,000 troops to the region in the event of conflict. The New York Times reported Trump told advisers in a Situation Room meeting on Wednesday that he doesn’t want war with Iran.
Instead, Trump has appealed to Iranian leaders to talk to him and told American reporters that “I’d like to see them call me.” Late Wednesday, the White House announced that Trump would meet with Swiss president Ueli Maurer, who acts as an official diplomatic intermediary between Iran and the U.S., to discuss “facilitating diplomatic relations and other international issues.”
Members of Congress who fear war with Iran say they hope Trump will err on the side of restraint. Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said the situation could flare up fast.
“I hope he appreciates the fact that this is dry kindling, and these provocative actions have spread lighter fluid,” he said.
—with additional reporting by Sam Brodey