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U.S. Airstrikes Contain Twin Messages to Iran, American Officials Say

The American strikes on two Iranian military munitions stockpiles in Syria on Friday were carefully designed, President Biden’s aides said, to send two distinct messages to Tehran.

The first was that if the attacks on American forces by Iranian proxies escalate, it would force the United States into the kind of overt military confrontation with Iran that both nations have avoided since the Iranian revolution in 1979.

And the second was that if the attacks stop, both sides could quietly back away, free to resume the simmering hostilities that have characterized the relationship in recent years.

It is the latest gamble by the United States to modify Iran’s behavior, few of which have worked in the past. And now, with the backdrop of a new war in the Middle East, President Biden is signaling that Tehran’s best bet is to stay clear of involvement. The main goal, said John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, is “to deter and to prevent future attacks.”

Mr. Kirby added the U.S. did not want to escalate: “Nobody’s looking for a conflict with Iran.”

The American strikes on a weapons storage facility and an ammunition storage facility, conducted by Air Force F-16 jets, were in response to rocket and drone attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, which the Pentagon said caused traumatic brain injuries to 19 troops. While there have been American strikes before — including the targeted assassination in January 2020 of the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani — these strikes were intended as highly visible brushback pitches.

“These precision self-defense strikes are a response to a series of ongoing and mostly unsuccessful attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militia groups,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement. He quickly added that the United States “has no intention nor desire to engage in further hostilities” if the Iranian-backed attacks stop.

(Later on Friday, Iran’s proxies launched an attack drone at U.S. forces in western Iraq, but there were no injuries or damage on the ground — suggesting that relatively low-level skirmishes may continue.)

Mr. Biden approved the strikes after U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wanted to avoid a wider war with Israel or with the United States, U.S. officials said.

But the Iranians wanted to do something to pressure the United States to rein in Israel and to remind the Americans of Tehran’s power, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. response, officials said, was calibrated to demonstrate strength, but not escalate the situation or give hard-liners an excuse to press Ayatollah Khamenei to lend his support for a wider regional war, led by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Mr. Kirby told reporters on Friday that the purpose “was to have a significant impact on future I.R.G.C., Iran-backed militia group operations,” and that the strikes were aimed “at storage facilities and ammo depots that we know will be used to support the work of these militia groups.”

Whether such finely tuned messages are received as intended, though, is far from clear. Past attempts to try to control Iran’s behavior have fallen flat.

President Barack Obama struck a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in hopes that it would begin a new era of modest cooperation between the two countries, once Iran began to reintegrate into the world economy. That never happened. President Donald J. Trump said exiting the deal would prompt Iran to come begging for a new agreement because sanctions were breaking the country. That did not happen either.

When Mr. Biden came into office, he tried to restore the nuclear deal, which had largely contained Iran’s nuclear activity, international nuclear inspectors said, until Mr. Trump pulled out of it. After 18 months of negotiations, a final deal seemed on the table — until the Iranians raised new demands and it fell apart.

Similarly, many of the roughly 1,500 American and Western economic sanctions on Iran were intended to halt its support of Hamas and Hezbollah, the powerful militia in Lebanon. But both Democratic and Republican presidents have discovered that the strategy has simply not worked. And in recent times, Iran has been selling roughly 1.5 million barrels of oil each day, a four-year high, with the vast majority of those shipments going to China.

Supporters of the Palestinians demonstrating in Tehran after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.Credit…Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

Those sales have left Iran in better financial shape than it has been in some time, and Iranian officials do not appear to want to risk losing the business, a major danger in an all-out conflict.

Ayatollah Khamenei believes a wider war with Israel would be enormously damaging to Iran, according to American officials. He also believes, they say, that only the U.S. government has any influence over Israel’s actions after the devastation wrought by Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack.

In addition to those oil sales to China, Iranian officials have something else going for them these days: a much closer relationship to Russia. Eight years ago, when the nuclear accord was being negotiated in Austria and Switzerland, Russian and Chinese officials were working with the United States and Europe to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. Now that political alignment has cracked.

Iran has supplied Moscow with much-needed drones to prosecute the war against Ukraine. It is building a drone factory in Russia. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, was in Moscow on Friday for consultations with Russian officials at the same time Hamas officials were visiting, Iran’s state news media reported. Mr. Bagheri Kani met with Hamas’s senior political official, Moussa Abu Marzouk, the Iranian reports indicated.

Mr. Bagheri Kani said that Iran’s priority was an immediate cease-fire in the Israel-Gaza war, the delivery of humanitarian aid and the lifting of the blockade. “We will pursue these objects earnestly at various international levels,” he said.

Palestinians removing bodies from the rubble after an Israeli airstrike in southern Gaza on Thursday. Iran has said its immediate priority is a cease-fire in the Israel-Gaza war.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times

Iran appears committed to offering full diplomatic support to Hamas. But militarily, its strategy is more nuanced. American officials said that Iran was trying to carefully calibrate attacks by its proxy forces, so they did not start a wider war but still diverted resources away from Israel’s effort in Gaza.

U.S. officials said that Iran was encouraging Hezbollah to continue its limited cross-border rocket attacks to ensure that Israel was forced to keep a sizable portion of its forces focused on its northern border.

Similarly, U.S. officials assess that Iranian officials believe that if the United States moves equipment to protect its troops in Iraq and Syria, it draws some support away from Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Iran does not want to be forced to back Hezbollah in a war against Israel and the United States, which could be ruinous for the government in Tehran. Both Iranian and Hezbollah leaders, in the view of American and some European officials, would like to avoid anything that would bring Israeli forces across the border or bring U.S. air power into the fight.

Tehran, according to American officials, has long supported Hamas with supplies and training. But the United States and its closest European allies have collected no evidence that Iran knew about the Oct. 7 attacks, helped plan them or helped train the fighters. The U.S. government assesses that top Iranian leaders, including the Quds Force commander, were surprised to learn about the attacks.

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