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

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has elevated criticism and stress on Iran in current days: accusing the nation of planning assassinations of American diplomats, saying hacking indictments, making ready unilateral sanctions and denouncing Tehran for interfering within the November election.

However the marketing campaign to denigrate and isolate Iran belies Tehran’s present posture. Iran’s supreme chief has blocked any giant, direct retaliation to the US, not less than for now, permitting solely cyberactivity to flourish, in accordance with American and allied officers briefed on new intelligence reporting.

Iran additionally deserted plans it had a 12 months in the past to ship an election season shock this fall, like an assault on Persian Gulf delivery or Center Japanese oil manufacturing meant to shock world monetary markets and damage President Trump’s possibilities of re-election, in accordance with American officers acquainted with the intelligence.

Iran recalculated after the pandemic devastated the world economic system, making any kind of assault on oil manufacturing ineffective. Iran additionally now believes that any strike past covert cyberattacks would profit Mr. Trump, permitting him to rally his base and provides the US a possibility for a army response, in accordance with American, allied and Iranian officers.

Iranian leaders, in accordance with allied intelligence, have concluded that restraint is one of the simplest ways to stop Mr. Trump’s re-election.

Nonetheless, Mr. Trump and a number of other of his high aides have portrayed Iran as an more and more harmful risk. On Saturday, the US will reimpose sanctions on Iran, appearing with out the assist of Europe, which opposes the transfer. Mr. Trump and Robert C. O’Brien, his nationwide safety adviser, have introduced Iran as a risk to the autumn election on par with Russia, an evaluation that intelligence officers and outdoors consultants say is incorrect.

Some administration officers have acknowledged the Iranians’ current restraint. In a briefing with reporters this week in regards to the sanctions, Elliott Abrams, the State Division’s envoy for Iran coverage, mentioned Iran had been appearing with a “certain degree of caution,” although he credited the shift to the American army strike in January that killed Major Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian commander who oversaw Tehran’s proxy forces across the Center East.

American intelligence on Iranian intentions has at all times been imprecise, and officers wouldn’t talk about intimately the proof behind the brand new assessments of Iranian warning. However officers mentioned the conclusion of relative inaction by Iran was in step with its current actions within the Center East.

Privately, Iranian leaders are satisfied that the US and Israel are working operations towards them, in accordance with allied officers briefed on intelligence. However they’ve held again on main retaliation, akin to for a July explosion at its Natanz nuclear sites that Israel has been mentioned to be chargeable for. Iran didn’t publicly assign blame for the blast, which destroyed a plant making centrifuges and was a severe setback for its nuclear program.

Iranian officers sensed a entice, the allied officers mentioned. Iranian officers consider that such assaults are geared toward luring them to retaliate in order that the US or Israel may reply with a army strike.

Regardless of Iran’s total restraint, the rise in Iranian hacking makes an attempt has been notable. Microsoft warned last week {that a} hacking group known as Phosphorous that it has linked to the Iranian authorities has “unsuccessfully attempted to log into the accounts of administration officials and Donald J. Trump for President campaign staff,” an acceleration of assaults underway for months.

Microsoft, with the approval of a federal court docket, has seized 155 web domains that it has proved are beneath the management of the Iranian group, and are used for assaults. However in contrast with previous Iranian exercise, the assaults have left American intelligence officers unimpressed.

Past the sanctions, the Trump administration has seemed for different methods to accentuate each its criticism and stress on Tehran. The Justice Division introduced 4 indictments in three days of Iranian hacking teams, although none had been associated to election interference. And the State and Treasury Departments additionally announced sanctions on Thursday associated to Iranian hackers backed by Tehran’s intelligence company who’ve focused dissidents, journalists and others within the nation.

The Navy introduced the plane service Nimitz, and its accompanying assist ships, had entered the Persian Gulf on Friday. Navy officers mentioned the motion was a long-scheduled coaching deployment however acknowledged that it additionally signaled to Iran to keep away from any provocative actions as the brand new American sanctions take impact.

Administration officers have additionally emphasised Iran’s efforts at election interference. Along with attempting to infiltrate the Trump marketing campaign, Iran has additionally used social media to criticize the White Home’s dealing with of the coronavirus pandemic and spotlight social unrest in the US.

However Iran is unable to mix its overt criticism with extra hidden efforts to sow divisiveness in America with the effectiveness of Russian intelligence operatives, mentioned 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 mentioned. “The biggest threat in election interference right now is not Iran.”

Iran is against Mr. Trump’s re-election, in accordance with a statement last month from William R. Evanina, a senior official within the Workplace of the Director of Nationwide Intelligence. However the assertion was telling as a result of it didn’t define any actions by Iran that evaluate with Russia’s extra sturdy election interference operations, mentioned Consultant Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the Home Intelligence Committee.

“To judge by the O.D.N.I. statement, we aren’t seeing any of the kind of actions taken by Russia being undertaken by Iran,” Mr. Schiff mentioned in an interview. “Iran has a sophisticated cybercapability but nothing on the level of Russia. It does not have the experience or the infrastructure to mount the kind of campaign Russia waged in 2016 or is undertaking right now.”

The Trump administration has emphasised the specter of Iranian interference on behalf of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee. The White Home has highlighted Iranian interference partly to placate Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly expressed hostility to ideas that Russia was intervening on his behalf, in accordance with former intelligence officers.

Above all, Iran’s objective is to retain assist from Europe, Russia and China, all of which oppose efforts by the US to reimpose financial sanctions, and to keep away from doing something that might jeopardize the expiration of a United Nations arms embargo scheduled for October.

Israeli assaults on Iranian forces in Syria this 12 months prompted the brand new chief of Iran’s Quds Pressure to induce his authorities to reply. However Iran’s supreme chief, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blocked any large-scale response. As a substitute the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps acquired permission for a small cyberattack towards Israel.

After the Natanz blast, the Quds Pressure once more pressed for a response towards Israel, and Ayatollah Khamenei once more rebuffed the request.

American authorities officers have mentioned in current days obvious threats towards American diplomats by the Iranians, a part of an effort by Iran retaliate for the January drone strike that killed Normal Suleimani.

Lana Marks, the American ambassador to South Africa and a political supporter of Mr. Trump, was a possible goal of an Iranian assault, in accordance with nationwide safety officers. However some briefed on the intelligence mentioned Iran has not determined to straight goal any American official, and different present and former officers accused the Trump administration of overstating the risk. Politico earlier reported that Ms. Marks was a goal.

Iran denied the allegations and mentioned it was propaganda geared toward rising tensions earlier than the election.

The Trump administration’s marketing campaign to criticize or additional isolate Iran has generally backfired.

For instance, the sanctions, which cited violations by Iran of its landmark 2015 nuclear settlement with world powers, are meant to harness the worldwide neighborhood’s energy towards Iranian commerce. However the US is alone in planning to implement them, after European allies recoiled from the Trump administration’s insistence that it may proceed to punish Iran deal beneath the phrases of the pact, which it withdrew from two years ago.

That escalated already simmering tensions between the US and allies in Europe which have threatened to spill over into different diplomatic points, in accordance with a senior European official.

The Trump administration has stronger assist for its onerous line towards Iran with some Gulf international locations, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that see Iran because the “primary destabilizing force in the Middle East,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it in a current interview on the Atlantic Council. However the administration’s powerful line dangers irritating different international locations within the area, notably Iraq and Qatar, each of which host American troops and are strategic American companions within the Center East but in addition keep ties with Tehran.

Iran is exercising patience, sticking to low-level cyberoperations it hopes can’t be straight attributed to it. Iranian officers don’t have any nice perception into American politics however learn American and European information experiences as suggesting a victory by Mr. Biden is extra seemingly, mentioned Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former C.I.A. officer and a senior fellow on the Basis for Protection of Democracies.

“As long as Western commentary is showing Biden favored to win, I suspect the Iranian reaction will be to play a waiting game,” Mr. Gerecht mentioned.

Iran is probably going fastidiously weighing the dangers that any motion to undermine Mr. Trump would backfire towards the distant probability it may efficiently intrude within the presidential marketing campaign.

“Would they really be in a position to influence the election?” Mr. Schiff requested. “And if they are not, is it worth the risk of getting caught and suffering the blowback?”

Julian E. Barnes, David E. Sanger and Lara Jakes reported from Washington, and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.

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