How Months of Miscalculation Led the U.S. and Iran to the Brink of War

The Trump administration escalated pressure on Iran to try to negotiate over its nuclear aims. Instead, Iran fought back with violent attacks. At critical points, each country misjudged the other.

Comments: 56

  1. Interesting to note that the 'war resolution" giving Bush the right to defend "American interests" required a vote of only a majority of the Senate. But now with the stakes even higher Trump is able to veto any curb on the resolution which means it would take a 75% vote of congress to remind it. Talk about going from the frying pan into the fire.

  2. I generally agree with the articles main points of mistakes and misinterpreted actions. However, Iran was like North Korea resigned to building and keeping nuclear weapons. Iran just tried to milk it for all it was worth. North Korea decided it was the only way to lash out against the west and survive. The trump administration still believes that a “deal” is what can make it all work out in the end. Maximum pressure then the “deal”. The generals that tried to guide trump have all been fired. Another of trumps favorite moves. So now we have amateurs running state and defense. Anything could happen between now and the end of trumps moment as the sun king.

  3. Hark back to the movie, “Dr Strangelove”, and its war room scene in which George C. Scott’s agitated character, General Buck Turgidson jumps up and down, urging war with the Rooskies, to a dupe US President played by Peter Sellers. Similar situation here, except Trump is even more of a dupe. The most aggressive US generals have now become much more powerful. Thank you Speaker Pelosi for valiantly justifying your place in history against chest-thumping war mongers by voicing your opposition to any new war. The Soleimani decision was not really Trump’s. After all, we have over 3 years of history of Trump being manipulated by nationalist foreign autocrats, most obviously by Putin, but also Kim Jong-un and Erdogan. Our own military leaders knew too well how to play Trump into the decision to hit Soleimani, hoping for a full-on shooting war with Iran. They may yet succeed.

  4. Just out of curiosity, where is the rage from the American right wing regarding the unanswered attack on US troops resulting in more than 100 casualties? Imagine had that happened under a Democratic president. This would still be major headline news whereas now it is barely a blip.

  5. Oil is the largest part of the problem. If the world economy were not so dependent on it there wouldn’t be so much to fight over in the Middle East. Sure they would still have water problems and religious tensions but with limited demand for oil, revenues to support these terrible conflicts might diminish their magnitude and relieve the US of the perceived need to intervene militarily in that part of the world. And, BTW less worldwide dependence on oil would do wonders for bringing global warming under control. Makes renewables seem the downright smart thing to do.

  6. And it’s also about water - both for agricultural purposes and especially potable. Keep in mind the Mideast is basically a big dessert with little access to fresh water. The largest source of water is of course the Mediterranean whose water is highly saline. Actors and agents will argue it’s about politics and/or religion. But those are just the cover stories used to hid the actual reasons.

  7. @Buck Without oil, the middle east would be an arid geography with nomadic tribes making up the majority. Oil has allowed the middle east wealth, and a population explosion. If oil ended this minute, what would happen to the countless millions in the middle east? Would they be imported to Europe or the US? What happens when one's livelihood dries up because of climate change or any significant economic downturn? Same outcome; they move.

  8. @Buck The history of European societies fighting wars in the Middle East and Persia dates back thousands of years, long before oil was discovered there.

  9. Mr. Trump's unpredictability and unreliability also make Iran reluctant to negotiate. Nuclear agreement made in 2015 curbing Iran's program for 10 years with intrusive inspection was good. If the sanctions were lifted, Iran got integrated into the world economy, it would have had little incentive to escalate its nuclear program after the expiration of 10 years. However, Mr. Trump didn't give it a chance to work out fully despite Iran's compliance. They will wait for November election result. If Trump leaves office they will come back to the negotiations. If Mr. Trump wins expect more hostilities in Middle east. The primary reason for the fiasco is Mr. Trump's ego, he can get better deal than Mr. Obama. He made no progress with N Korea and now Iran. I win you lose, strategy he used with banks to repay a portion of loan by declaring bankruptcy, doesn't work with the nations.

  10. U.S. and Iran certainly underestimated each others intent and military capability. In the end it went from brink of war to a brink of peace. Any escalation will result in an all out war and both countries need to chill out and sit across the table to reduce tensions and build a relationship that will avert war.

  11. The violations of the agreement Iran committed from the beginning started this. Within months of the agreement ending sanctions, uranium was discovered at sites not declared to the UN. Iran reported their Fordo facility was nothing more than a research facility. But now it’s ringed with anti-aircraft guns and according to the Atomic watchdog agency it has over a thousand new centrifuges. Iran agreed to reduce their enriched stockpile, but instead it has grown from 241 kilograms to 372. That’s 820 pounds of enriched uranium. The limit they agree to with Obama was 202 kilograms. I had high hopes for President Obama's agreement. But good cop did not work with Iran.

  12. Webster’s dictionary: “Months of miscalculations...” definition of war since humans existed.

  13. "“If I can harness a world power against Iran — which aims to annihilate us — why not?” A revealing choice of words from Bibi.

  14. As an Iranian expatriate, it bothers me immensely that pieces about Iran gets published in a reputable publication such as The New York Times by an Iranian contributing writer, Farnaz Fassihi, in all of which the every day suffering of normal Iranian people due to the 41 year long rule of the repressive Islamic regime in Iran is completely ignored whatsoever. . Each time that you write about Iran, you must mention that an 80 million strong nation is suffering an oppressive regime for more than four decades. And the majority of them oppose the regime. The regime may have at most 15% approval rate. You can guess how easy it would be to get some of those 15% on streets to mourn an international terrorist such as Qassem Soleimani when the oppressive regime supports such event and suppresses any dissenting voice. . Farnaz Fassihi could underline major demonstrations against the regime in several cities just in the past few months in spite of all the repressive and brutal measures by the Islamic regime against demonstrators and their families. But she has failed to do so. . Iran is being ruled by the "Shia Taliban" or the "Shia ISIS" if you will, but nobody will ever say so in the NYTimes, just because they are too busy to go against Trump on any and all matters. . And normal Iranians are paying the price. Such an immeasurable price.

  15. @Pooya Only in America!

  16. Persia has been around for thousands of years , America for only 275. So there is a lot of history on Persia’s side for survival

  17. Brink of war in this case is something conjured up by the media. We were no closer to war than when Iran seized US navy boats in 2016.

  18. One of the facts that is the bedrock of this world is that the comments section of the NY Times will blame President Trump before blaming any foreign power, no matter the circumstances.

  19. I wish the NYT would follow the late Jim Lehrer's rule #7 of journalism - Do not mix opinion or news analysis with news. As in: "The Trump administration escalated a campaign of financial warfare — so-called maximum pressure — to suffocate Iran’s economy..." ..."warfare --so-called maximum pressure--"... Really? Jim Lehrer spins in his grave. Warfare IS proxy militias destabilizing Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, et al.

  20. "Death to America" needs to be confronted and contained.

  21. To say that the US and Iran are on the “brink of war” seems to be an exaggerated claim. The killing of Solemani showed that the US is not a “paper tiger” and was met by an extremely weak response from Iran and nothing further. The Iranians can not possibly match the US in a war and their proxies are now on notice that further violence will not be tolerated. The Iranian economy is collapsing and its people are revolting. The Iranian leadership continues the same old tired rhetoric (death to America, flatten Tel Aviv), but they are proving to be a paper tiger. The brink of war? Hardly.

  22. At the behest of Saudi Arabia and Israel Trump was induced to ratchet up the idea that Iran is the demon of world peace. Israel persuaded Trump to pull out of a deal that kept Iran's nuclear ambitions contained. A survey of opinion from around the globe cites the U.S. as the biggest threat to world peace, with Israel coming in second. These two bellicose nations are doing their best to destabilize the mid-east. Iran helped the U.S. defeat ISIS. Iran was not America's enemy (yes, they have legitimate gripes: the overthrow of their democratically elected president for the benefit of U.S. oil companies, the downing of a civilian airliner, the giving to Saddam Hussein satellite coordinates to aid him in the war he started with Iran, and allowing him to use chemical warfare against Iranian s). Now Trump has done his best to make Iran the enemy of the U.S. And, the Senate won't reign him in.

  23. How Months of Miscalculation Led the U.S. and Iran to the Brink of War. For 45 years Russia and the United States stood toe to toe, with arsenals that could effectively remove the earths crust, and never had a "miscalculation" because they understood each other. There were "rules to the game", like pieces on chess board; there were things a Knight could do that a Bishop couldn't. They played like professionals. Today, the players are amateurs, who don't know how to play the game and don't how to play by the rules; and that's why after "Months of Miscalculation the U.S. and Iran are still standing on the Brink of War.

  24. @Mike.. I beg to differ. Iran is ancient civilization that has survived by playing the game, despite being demonized unjustly by two of the world's most warmongering nations, and playing it to survive. Trump has no business being compared even to an amateur, much less to the Iranian leadership.

  25. "The brink of war" isn't backed up by the article. Where is the part where either side actually considered a war? When did Iran ever say killing Soleimani was a "red line" that would result in war? Did the US Joint Chiefs of Staff ever put into motion any actual war plans? What evidence is presented that any decisionmakers actually wanted a war? Killing Soleimani on Iraqi territory while he was meeting with proxy militias, and the Iranian response, seem to be limited actions designed to avoid approaching the brink of war, and nothing in this article contradicts that.

  26. Israel has wanted a war with Iran for a very long time and will do anything it can to get us involved in defending them. Netanyahu addressed Congress with his fear-mongering. We are told only part of the nuclear arms race. Israel has nukes, too; by my knowledge, for at least 45 years.

  27. @bnc When one billion surround five million, deterrence is needed. Further, Israel has never said (like tons of muslim leaders about the jewish state) that this or that country has to be wiped out. The big powers and most of the world know this. Now, if Israel is at the brink of disappearing because of some madman doing something insane, without a doubt, it will not disappear alone. Muslims and Jews should live in peace not constant threats.

  28. @sebastian well you are right Israel has never said that certain countries must disappear from the face of the earth but it has done it in practice and is still l doing it right now by expanding settlements into Palestinian land.

  29. Iranian regime has been off the hook for years. Killing Soliemani was the right decision. No more appeasing. We in the region got nothing out of the ‘ Nuclear Deal’ just a photo op for Obama & co.

  30. Neither Israeli intelligence nor our State Department evangelical Christians should be taken at their words about this. Neither are unbiased. What happened to the recent article in the Times reporting that the Iraqis are claiming that Isis, not the "Iranian-backed" Hezbollah group fired the missiles that killed the American contractor?

  31. "Judged," as in "Misjudged" each other is not an appropriate word for the behavior of Trump.

  32. The comment section demonstrates that N.Y. Times readers are thinkers rather than engage in the too common mode of insult slingers. I hear readers as saying it might be good to give the people of Iran a chance to weigh in rather than give so much ink to the chest thumping government officials and generals, of any country....be it the US or Iran. That sounds like a good thing.

  33. This very publication screamed "War." It never happened. It wasn't going to happen. Now it seems they're trying to justify their William Randolph Hearst-like behavior. Too late. You're the only one with blood on your hands and it's the blood that flows from the death of Quality Journalism.

  34. Barleycorn: A smart guy would have quit reading a publication they have so little respect for. What does this comment say about you?

  35. It would be helpful if Trump saw the value of experts, people who spend their entire careers studying a particular area, rather than relying on ideologues like Pompeo, Bolton, and Netanyahu.

  36. CH: Trump does not like bureaucrats, the so called deep state he constantly refers to because their loyalty is to the US and not him. As a result, he avoids them where possible, and uses guys like Giuliani instead.

  37. "The Trump administration escalated pressure on Iran to try to negotiate over its nuclear aims. ...the chessmatch continues" You'd never guess that assassinating Iranian leaders by drone attacks was part of some "chess game" from that headline.

  38. Being the tough guy rarely brings positive results over the long term (don't get mad, get even). Instead, I suggest we call off all sanctions to Iran (and also N. Korea), but for only one year. In exchange these countries must stop causing trouble elsewhere, and stop developing WMD systems. What I suspect will happen is their economies will improve due to increased trade; and their people will get used to the comfortable living. If their governments then try more "adventures", sanctions, and worse, will be promptly returned. One can expect their people to react to these new hardships the way a pig would squeal when stuck with a pin.

  39. “The killing prompted Iran to take a step it had long avoided: a direct and overt strike against the American military.” A step it had long avoided? Here is a step that the US has long avoided if we are going to slip propaganda in with rhetorical devices like a step it has long avoided. Leveling all Iranian military installations and then salting the earth is a step the US has long avoided even as its embassy was taken and citizens held hostage and citizens tortured and killed and Iranians roamed through the world killing whoevers killing they thought would help them run the world their way.

  40. Could we stop the fantasy and propaganda? The CIA replaced a democratically elected government in Iran in 1953, the Iranian revolution followed and since that time Iran has been portrayed as the reincarnation of evil. It wasn't months of calculations that led us to this point, but decades of American sanctioned anti-Iranian policies, a relentless full powered media campaign to demonize Iran, and most recently the complete destruction of Iran's nuclear deal. All to erase America's imperial misdeeds and crimes. Inform the public and stop pushing false narratives without context. Trump is President because Americans refuse to learn history and question what we are told. The media seems only interested in entertaining a entertainment-addicted public.

  41. @RC , 1953 was almost 70 years ago! Most people who were making decisions then are long dead and gone, or close! If we keep relitigating ancient history, almost anything is justified. How far back do you want to go? -- Rome invading England? Cro-magnions battling Neanderthals, or even more?

  42. Interesting comments today. I have two takeaways. One, the nuclear agreement's main achievement was a path to communication that had not existed before. Guessing what the other side might be thinking fosters miscalculation. Second, the N Korea lesson is that being a nuclear power brings respect, even if for all the wrong reasons. Knowing that our word is worthless, why wouldn't Iran forge ahead? Swagger might have a place in the military but not in the State Dept.

  43. Iran is quiet. Trump won this match.

  44. @sebastian Iran has played its very weak hand smartly, by signaling that any war will be very costly. First, Iran demonstrated that it can attack targets such as oil tankers, in such a way that it cannot be definitely proved that Iran was responsible. Next, Iran shot down a $176 million RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone. American military forces and their allies are still fighting opponents Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as well a minor actions in Africa. A great advantage that American military forces and their allies have, is provided by surveillance drones. The Taliban, Al-Qaida, Isis and other enemies would have loved to shoot down a Global Hawk surveillance drone, temporarily denying American military forces the advantage the Global Hawk provides. However, shooting down a Global Hawk was far beyond their capabilities, as the RQ-4 flies far above the range of ordinary anti-aircraft weapons. Iran signaled that it can shoot down RQ-4 Global Hawks. Iran says it was over Iranian territorial waters at the time. The Americans say it was in international waters. Many nations that in the past would automatically accept America's version of such events, have expressed doubt as to which is correct. This illustrates the degree that Trump has reduced America's credibility. While, Iran's military is no match for America, even without any allies, invading and occupying Iran could make the fiasco of the second US-Iraq war look like a picnic." https://seekingalpha.com/article/4272622

  45. I am always disgusted by attempts to portray a dictatorial warmongering terrorist state as somehow in the least interested in peace stability of even economic well being of the oppressed Iranian people.

  46. @Freednoe Sorry, but it's not clear which warmongering terrorist state your referring to.

  47. "The killing prompted Iran to take a step it had long avoided: a direct and overt strike against the American military. Four days after General Suleimani was killed, Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at two American bases in Iraq. More than 100 American soldiers were injured, but no one was killed ..." This was not a "direct" strike, Iran missed intentionally, that much is clear, though you don't acknowledge it, nor do you credit Trump for the right strategy.

  48. Wouldn't have happened if Trump hadn't fed the "paper tiger" perception by not retaliating the first time Iran attacked a tanker. Killing a terrorist was the right thing to do. He was responsible for killing innocent civilians far and wide, and needed to be taken out for the safety of people all over the world. Not a Trump fan, but thumbs up for the courage to do what needed doing, Mr. President!

  49. Months of miscalculations did not bring the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war. Trump and Bibi have been itching to take out Iran's leaders for years and John Bolton was more than willing to escalate pressure.

  50. There has been a covert/proxy war between the US and Iran since the invasion of Iraq. Iranian weapons, trained militia forces, explosively formed penetrator devices, and funding for Iraqi groups all directly attacked and planned attacks against US troops in Iraq. Iran was open about it. It was in the news. No one seemed to question it. President Bush and Obama both engaged covertly, but avoided a broader, direct attack on Iranian assets as at that time (say 2010), Iran had the upper hand in terms of total troops on the ground, and the US was tired of high casualties. The strikes by Iran and the attack on Suliman are just a new front in this long simmering war. If Trump had conducted the attack after the shooting down of the drone, Iran would have backed off as well. They can't afford a regional war as the public will face further deprivation. They also do no want to give the US a reason to attack their nuclear facilities as obtaining a nuclear weapon is the only way to gain respect in the world order. Pressure and containment must continue. The key is to be willing to use overwhelming military force if necessary. The caveat is trying to avoid that use. Trump does not have the diplomatic skills to walk that fine line. Talking about this as an escalation and a new war is preposterous. It reminds me how the US population just collectively shrugged for years as my friends and I served in Iraq and Afghanistan before the withdrawal. The mob is fickle and easily distracted.

  51. Not months but decades of US folly have led to the impass with Iran. In 1951 the Iranian parliament (formed in 1905) nationalized the oli assets of BP and appointed Mohammed Mossadehq as prime minister. Britain was furious (it was at the same time nationalizing its steel, coal and transport industries) but winded from WW II could do nothing. Truman refused to assist. But in 1953 Eisenhower gave the green light to a CIA led coup that toppled Mossadehq, abolished parliament and made the Pahlavi shah and his vicious SAVAK secret police dictators. The US supported the shah and supplied his military. The people revolted in 1979. And the US has since neither forgiven nor considered how to deal with Iran. Much like Cuba since 1959 (with a brief interlude under Obama), Iran is and will remain an enemy. Obama led the effort to stop a nuclear Iran and welcome Iran back into the community of nations. But Trump pulled the US out of the deal and has imposed severe sanctions. And Iran is approaching the ability to be nuclear. Sad that the US is no longer the world leader that can effect positive change. How long will it take to remedy the damage done by Trump?

  52. The only question that remains now, is whether Iran will test its' first nuclear bomb before or after the 2020 USA elections. The Iranian ballistic missile attack on two bases in Iraq used by American forces, probably eliminated any debate within the leadership of Iran as to how to proceed with their nuclear program. Ballistic missiles without nuclear warheads are not useful military weapons. Their speed of thousands of miles per hour is such that they can only come within a few miles of a target. That is perfectly good for delivering a thermonuclear bomb to a target like a large city, but essentially worthless if armed only with conventional explosives against small hardened targets like bunkers and military bases. That is why the US military does not employ ballistic missiles without nuclear warheads. That the 17 Iranian ballistic missiles caused no fatalities and only minimal damage, demonstrated to Iran that it now has no way to effectively attack American military targets. Iran does have precision guided ordinance such as cruise missiles and drones, such as those that were used in their attack on the Saudi oil facilities. However, the chance of any Iranian cruise missiles and/or drones traveling at only hundreds of miles per hour penetrating a defended American position or naval combatant, is zero. Likewise, Iranian military aircraft would have no chance against advanced American fighters or air defenses.

  53. What I don't read here is refutation of Trump claims that Iran is restrained in its economic support of regional terrorism because of US policy. Yes, the anti-Iran coalition suffers from division native to Trump's obstinacy, so that few in the region are willing to oppose Iranian alliance with bad actors like Bashar al Assad. And there's no sign that forcing the Ayatollah to the negotiating table will ever work, because we can't really leverage his regime by Trumpian bully tactics. But is the IRI restrained by economic factors from what it was previously doing in the Middle East, prior to the junking of the nuclear deal and the new sanctions? I don't see an answer here.

  54. According to the article, Mr. Trump's order to assassinate Gen. Soleimani was not based on any immediate "clear and present danger" to the US, to the US forces, or an attack on US allies in the region. It was rather based on the US fear that Iranians could reach accommodation with their neighbors and bring peace and stability to the region. And that was apparently contrary to the US vision "carefully built by the Trump administration over more than two years". In his book "The Next 100 Years", George Friedman describes the US past and present policy toward the Middle East (ME) to be one of keeping the region destabilized. The US justifies that policy by a list of economic and geopolitical avails - often referred to as "the US interests" - that are offered by a destabilized ME. Historically, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the main instrument in destabilizing the ME. But that instrument is no longer effective, as Arab countries feel little domestic pressure to support Palestinians or confront Israel's expansionist policies. The article, however, points out that the US is devising a new instrument for destabilizing the ME; namely, to have "Israel and certain Sunni countries gain supremacy over Iran, the world’s largest Shiite-majority state." That would certainly destabilizes the ME for many decades to come as the Iranians will never accept that. At the same time, it is now clear that ME countries, if left alone, they can settle their disputes peacefully.

  55. Why would the Iranians negotiate with Trump when Trump has already proven himself incapable of upholding agreements with less powerful or wealthy entities?

  56. Whaddaya mean, "miscalculation"? A faction within the US, goaded along for over a decade by the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been wanting the US to go on an all-out attack against Iran ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. It's not about calculation, it's about several factors: 1. Some people haven't encountered a potential war they didn't like. Any war allows profiteers an opportunity to make a lot of money at public expense. 2. Some people want to kill every Muslim they can. It's simple religious bigotry. 3. Some people are still fighting the Cold War and want to push the military front against Russia from the south like they're playing Risk instead of real war. 4. Some people want to make sure the US and its allies have total control over all the oil in the world. And I can guarantee you that none of the people that are really pushing for war have spent any time at all working with veterans, refugees, or anyone else who pays the horrific cost.