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

By Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman and Farnaz Fassihi
Feb 14, 2020

WASHINGTON — In late September, a plane carrying senior Iranian officials touched down in Abu Dhabi, the gleaming capital of the United Arab Emirates.The Middle East had witnessed a summer of violence, and a meeting with the Iranians was part of a quiet strategy by Emirati leaders to defuse the tension. The small but powerful Persian Gulf nation wanted to broker a separate peace — avoiding violence that could shatter its decades-long effort to present itself as a modern, stable oasis in a volatile region.But the meeting set off alarms inside the White House, where officials learned about it only after reading reports from American spy agencies. The Emirati government, a stalwart ally that had long pushed for a hawkish American approach toward Iran, was in secret talks with Iranian officials. National Security Council officials met to discuss the implications: A united front against Iran — carefully built by the Trump administration over more than two years — seemed to be crumbling.The episode came in the midst of a nine-month period that shook up the United States’ already combustible relationship with Iran — beginning with the Trump administration’s escalation of sanctions and culminating with the two powers in a direct military confrontation on the brink of wider and bloodier conflict.The chess match continues, with little evidence that either has a sense of the other’s next move, but with the prospect of an American president newly constrained on Iran policy. The Senate passed a resolution on Thursday requiring congressional sign-off for future military actions against Iran — a move Mr. Trump has said he would veto.

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What happened over the past several months, based on interviews with officials from the United States, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries as well as outside analysts, is a story of miscalculations by both sides and of violence that spilled into nations across the Middle East — from Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iraq.


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